Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here introduce our three-part series on German author Erich Maria Remarque, and the great 1930 screen classic inspired by his novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
To capture the full force of this movie, it helps to know something about the source material, Remarque’s masterful 1929 novel. Thus we turn to our BOOKS 2 MOVIES maven Larry Michie — who has just plowed through the book — to provide a knowledgeable assessment.
Writes Larry: Remarque’s novel weighs in at just under 300 pages. It’s an easy read as novels go, but the narrative is enough to make you weep even before a shot is fired.
The young men are bullied by their schoolteacher into signing up for active duty, and their naive zeal is almost a mirror image of another slaughter of young patriots, namely Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.
Unfortunately, WWI had machine guns, gas canisters, long-range cannons and deadly airplanes. The squad hunkers down during one bombardment — but it’s a burial site, and the bombs churn up the cemetery, complete with some of the recently departed. The men under bombardment spend much of their energy battling hordes of rats. It’s not a pretty scene.
Paul Bäumer (portrayed by Lew Ayres in the movie) is the central character, and he and his mates are introduced all too soon to the horrors of war. Much of their time is devoted to scrounging for food, stealing such essentials as they can pilfer, and trying to be good soldiers while keeping their heads down. It is not long before their detachment of 150 men is reduced to 32.
In the movie as in the novel, the young men are introduced to military service by a classic martinet, one Himmelstoss (John Wray), a corporal who drills them and demeans them, and who eventually gets his comeuppance. It’s one rare bit of humor, although the lads in the trenches try their best to keep up their morale.
One of their finest delights is discovering three young French women not terribly far from their station. The young women are delighted by the food the young men steal to bring them — and delights are mutual.
Paul finally gets leave, and it’s small comfort to find his family impoverished and his mother very ill. He also can only barely disguise his contempt for his father’s cronies, drinking their beer and blathering about how wonderful the war is. That doesn’t sit well with a young man who has seen comrades blown to smithereens.
Part of Paul’s leave entails duty at a prison camp for Russians who have been captured. It seems impossible, but the Russians are more starved and mistreated than Paul and his German comrades.
One passage in that section of the novel is strikingly strange, and I can’t fathom the meaning or why it was included.
Paul says of the starving Russians, “But now they are quite apathetic and listless; most of them do not masturbate any more, they are so feeble, though otherwise things come to such a pass that whole huts full of them do it.” Go figure.
Paul goes back to the battleground just as the war is winding down. Paul’s epitaph: He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
The novel is well worth the read even after all these years. (It should be noted, by the way, that despite him being German and a celebrated author, The Nazis loathed Remarque. After they took power his books were banned and burned)
Thanks, Larry. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the film.