“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?”
I added the question mark to the Latin phrase above. I'm not very knowledgeable about Latin, but for the phrase to serve as a tagline for this film adding the punctuation seems necessary. Is it “sweet and right to die for one's country”? I believe the film's protagonist comes to the proper conclusion about that. The statement above seems to have lost some of its propaganda power in the 20th century. Perhaps the lessening of popular faith in dying for one's country can be at least partially credited to Erich Maria Remarque and his famous novel, as well as this film with the same name and story, directed by Lewis Milestone. Usually antiwar movies don't get Academy Awards (i.e. Best Picture), but this film comes from the era when sound was new to movies and the USA was less militarily aggressive.
After opening credits, the film begins with text which reads: “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war... ”
The first scenes show a German town with soldiers marching down the central street. They leave for the war, which has recently begun. The town postman Himmelstoss (John Wray) tells a local businessman that he has a change of uniform coming. His attitude to the townspeople seems properly deferential for a postman. As a Sergeant in the reserves, he has been called up.
The camera angle changes to observe the military parade from within a building which houses a classroom. At the front of the room a man speaks, but the military band drowns out his voice. Eventually, as the procession goes by, his voice come through clearly. Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) tells his students about his plan for victory. He exhorts them to join the army. As with any group of individuals, they seem to have differing views about his advice.
As the professor gives a spiel which any military recruiter might envy, each student has different imaginings about what it would be like to join the army. The camera focuses on several of the young men. One imagines a shocked mother and a proud father. Another imagines himself in uniform riding in a fine car with a girl on each arm. One seems anxious to engage in battle, another much less so.
The professor speaks of individual ambitions and mentions one student who shows great promise as a writer. “But now our country calls, the fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country,” says the professor. The young writer the professor mentioned: Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), decides to join the army. He announces this which precipitates a chorus of others also deciding to join. The group convinces those who hesitate to also join.
At training camp the young recruits meet Sergeant Himmelstoss, who drills them, taking extreme pleasure in holding his rank and new position of authority over them. The war has enhanced his status, at least temporarily. After training camp the classmates go to the front and meet some seasoned veterans in their newly assigned company. The wisest of the veterans: Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) befriends them. The film follows the classmates' company, especially Paul Bäumer and Kat Katczinsky, through the years of the war.
Erich Maria Remarque fought on the German side in what was then known as “The Great War.” That conflict now goes by the name World War One (WW1). In many ways WW1 set the tone for the entire 20th Century. Many films about war have been made since people began making movies, some give historical accounts, some promote a national point of view and some make the case that war may be the greatest evil in the world today. Of that last type, this film may be the greatest yet made.
For its time the film's acting met expectations, but most of the acting does not make this film a classic. Lewis Milestone deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for this movie. His excellent direction along with the exceptional special effects for the time and also the fine cinematography have given this particular execution of the story great lasting power. However, the dispassionate evaluation of war itself and what it does to people make this story a classic.
This film exposes war as a travesty having little to offer its participants other than disfigurement, misery and death. That may sound depressing, but war depresses most who actually encounter it. Don't allow your children to grow to young adulthood with the State's war propaganda unchallenged. Like few other movies this film can help people see clearly deep into the nature of war. I give All Quiet on the Western Front my highest recommendation.
Later Remake DVD
Audio Book CD