Great films III
Great films III
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is the first major anti-war film of the sound era, faithfully based upon the timeless, best-selling 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque (who had experienced the war first-hand as a young German soldier). The film was advertised with the brooding face of one of the young German recruits sent into World War I. The landmark, epic film, made on a large-scale budget of $1.25 million for Universal Pictures (and studio production head Carl Laemmle, Jr.), used acres of California ranch land for the battle scenes, and employed over 2,000 extras.
From four Academy Award nominations, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture (the third winner in the history of AMPAS) and Best Director (Lewis Milestone with his first sound feature), and it was also nominated for Best Writing Achievement (George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews) and Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson). It was a critical and financial success, and probably the greatest of pacifist, anti-war films – the grainy black and white film is still not dated and the film hasn’t lost its initial impact. The episodic film is still one of the few early sound films that modern audiences watch. However, it was criticized as being propagandistic and anti-militaristic, and it was denounced by the Nazi government of the 30s.
The film was made only a dozen years following the end of the Great War, and the memories of the war were still fresh. Before it, other war films in the silent era had done very well: King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), and William Wellman’s Wings (1927). Coming as it did with the dawning of sound pictures, its directors and producer, and at least one cast member went on to future fame: Carl Laemmle, Jr. (producer), Lewis Milestone (director), George Cukor (credited as dialogue director), and Fred Zinnemann (an extra).
A prologue, that introduces the film, was taken almost verbatim from the foreword to Remarque’s novel:
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…
Unlike Remarque’s novel that begins with the young men already at war, with flashbacks to earlier times, the film is told in a logical, chronological fashion. The content of the film can be divided into four distinct parts:
1. the pre-war education of schoolboys, and the enlistment of the young German recruits
2. the soldiers’ arrival at the front of World War I
3. the experiences of the cruelties and horrors of war in trench warfare
4. the hero’s homecoming, return to the front, and ultimate death
The film includes a series of vignettes and scenes that portray the senselessness and futility of war from the sympathetic point of view of the young German soldiers in the trenches in the Great War who found no glory on the battlefield, meeting only death and disillusionment. [Recent-day war films, including Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) have similarly portrayed a perspective of war from the soldier’s point of view.]
The film begins innocently enough. In a small German town, a conversation is being carried on between a charwoman who is scrubbing the floor and an elderly janitor who is polishing door knobs:
Janitor: Thirty thousand.
Charwoman: From the Russians?
Janitor: No, from the French. From the Russians we capture more than that every day.
As he opens the door, spike-helmeted German soldiers in 1914 uniforms march off to war to the nationalistic sounds of martial music (played by a military band), and the sight of flags flying and cheering crowds. The normal routines of life continue – however, life will be changing. A meek postman, Himmelstoss (John Wray), delivers the mail, but he will soon be joining the reserves (and will play a significant role in the film).
Framed by the windows of a German school, the military parade can be seen outside. The camera pulls back through the window into the schoolroom, where elderly, war-mongering, nationalistic teacher Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) preaches to a class of young German boys. He advocates “glory for the Fatherland,” inspiring and rousing the entire class of young boys to enlist in the army and fight Germany’s enemies. The jingoistic school master lectures to his young charges, who sit and listen intently at their school desks:
You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys – you are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called to do so. It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads. I know that in one of the schools, the boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. If such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a feeling of pride. Perhaps some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet – that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away by your fathers so forgetful of their fatherland…by your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth. And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run? And if our young ladies glory in those who wear it, is that anything to be ashamed of?…To be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war. There will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood in battle in a foreign land:…Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland…Now our country calls. The Fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country. Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.
Inspired by the uplifting rhetoric of their teacher, the boys rise one by one to their feet, promising to go. The group of German school boys enthusiastically cheer and volunteer to enlist for service in World War I. The young men who will soon become the central characters of the film are introduced. Seven naive boys (including Paul Baumer (21 year old Lew Ayres in a star-making role) and his friends Kropp, Leer, and Kemmerick), each young and impressionable, are recruited and trained to fight for the glory of the fatherland.
Arriving in training camp, the young boys expect war to be a great lark. They enthusiastically talk about fighting, using bayonets, riding cavalry, or killing the enemy, but soon, the schoolmaster’s words fade from their memories. They are trained by drill sergeant Himmelstoss, the ex-village postmaster who has become a disliked, sadistically brutal commander. During training, he proves to the recruits how they must obey his commands: “You’re not much to begin with, but I’ll do my best,” he threatens.
The first thing to do is to forget everything you ever knew, everything you ever learned – Forget! See. Forget what you’ve been, and what you think you’re going to be. You’re going to be soldiers, and that’s all. I’ll take the mother’s milk out of you, I’ll make you hard-boiled. I’ll make soldiers out of you, or kill you!
Himmelstoss takes pleasure during their training days in ordering the recruits to march into mud, fall down to the ground and crawl forward in the muck. After being dismissed one day, a recruit bitterly complains about Himmelstoss: “Oh that swine! Means we get no time off. Four hours to get ready for inspection.” After they have finished their training camp drills, they are sent to the front, but not before getting revenge on Himmelstoss on their final night by dumping him in the mud.
On the way to the front lines after being ordered there by rail, the new recruits disembark in a shell-torn French town. There, they hear the scream of enemy shells for the first time. The Germans are already suffering from lack of supplies and food. The raw recruits are greeted by disillusioned, cynically-stoic veterans of the war. Inside a deserted factory, the seasoned old-timers Westhus (Richard Alexander), Detering (Harold Goodwin), and Tjaden (George “Slim” Summerville) meet the “green” soldiers: “Here’s some more. Fresh from the turnip patch.” New recruit Paul asks the veterans: “You see, we haven’t eaten since breakfast, we thought maybe you could tell us what we ought to do about it.” Providing comic relief, Tjaden replies: “Eat without further delay.” And “it’s a bad town to bring an appetite to, soldier. We’ve been here since yesterday morning and we’ve been living on a bale of hay and razor blades.” They tell Paul how another front-wise career veteran Sergeant Katczinsky or “Kat” (Louis Wolheim) can always locate food if there is any to be found.
In a dramatic entrance, the incomparable Katczinsky arrives with a pig over his shoulders. Obviously, he has learned how to live amidst the horrors and deprivations of war. He instructs the young recruits: “Some time, I’m going to take one of you volunteers apart – find out what makes you leave school and join the army. Hey, this is no parade ground.” The boys must trade not paper money, but cigarettes, cigars, soap, cognac, and chewing tobacco for something to eat. Soon, everyone is devouring the whole pig.
That evening, the young boys are ordered to the front for “wiring duty” – their mission is to string barbed wire during the middle of the night. [Cinematographer Edeson filmed the night-time scene in daylight with skillful lighting.] The young men, marching in a column, look back (with a haunting, sad look) at the retreating vehicle which has brought them there. [The same sequence is used in the film’s final, super-imposed epilogue.] Bull-necked, salty Katczinsky takes the recruits under his protective wing and gives them pragmatic advice on what to expect under shell-fire: “Now you’re gonna see some shell fire, and you’re gonna be scared.” A screaming shell bursts closeby as they all duck for cover. One of the recruits soils his pants and Katczinsky is reassuring, as the camera trucks along in front of the soldiers:
Never mind. It’s happened to better men than you. And it’s happened to me. When we come back, I’ll get you all some nice, clean underwear.
He instructs them in proper protection from shell fire: “That cannon shell you don’t have to pay much attention to. Those big fellas just make a lot of noise and land about five miles behind the line. The things we’ve got to watch out for are them black ones. They don’t give you much warning…Mother Earth – press yourselves down upon her. Bury yourselves deep into her. Just keep your eyes on me. When you see me flop, you flop, only try to beat me to it.”
In their first night at the front, a bombardment erupts while they are stringing up barbed wire. One of the boys is blinded by shell fire and screams: “My eyes! I’m blind. I can’t see.” He staggers and is killed when he runs wildly toward the enemy line and into the path of machine-gun fire. The students learn that war is not noble – it is no more than cruel death and destruction. Katczkinsky explains how foolish it was for one of the recruits to go and retrieve his friend – the corpse of the dead man.
Soldier: (shocked) Dead. He’s dead.
Katczinsky: Why did you risk your life bringing him in?
Soldier: But it’s Behm, my friend.
Katczinsky: (admonishing) It’s a corpse, no matter whose it is. Now, don’t any of ya ever do that again.
The next day, Katczinsky tells the exhausted Paul about the war and the interminable march they are about to take to another “party”: “And this one is gonna last a long time. Come on. Here we go.”
For days on end, they sit terrified, hungry, disheveled and tired in a dug-out underground bunker, hearing the ever-present sound of bombs exploding above them. The anti-war message is made clear through their first experiences under fire. One shell-shocked soldier suffers nightmares of the horrors of claustrophobic trench warfare. Iron-willed Katczkinsky strikes another one who has a nervous breakdown under the strain. When part of the bunker collapses after a bomb hits, an hysterical Franz Kemmerick (Ben Alexander) runs outside and is struck in the leg by fire. Rats invade their quarters. Suddenly, the bombardment eases and the men run outside to take their positions in the trench. (Paul is easily distinguishable, because the spike on his helmet has been shot away.) The mobile camera travels over the heads of the men in the trench (evidently one of the earliest uses of a crane shot in any film).
In an inspired, realistic battle scene in no-man’s land [modern-day war films have often imitated it], the camera rapidly moves across and in front of the French infantry charge across the no-man’s land. Their charge is intercut with short cuts of German machine gunfire to hold them back and cut them down. At one point, a grenade explodes in front of a charging French soldier who is approaching some barbed wire and obliterates him. When the dirt and smoke clears, only his amputated hands are left gripping and clinging on the wire. Paul turns, writhes, and cringes in horror against his rifle stock.
The pace accelerates and the speed of the charge increases as the French front line gets closer. The camera shoots its images like a machine gun, mowing down the incoming French troops (from left to right) in the useless charge – scores of them drop under the fire. However, enough of the French get through and they leap into the German trenches – there is fierce hand-to-hand combat. The Germans must retreat from their position to a trench further back. The bodies of thousands litter the field of battle. Senselessly, many of Paul’s boyhood friends are killed.
And then, the French are driven back in a German counter-attack. As the Germans approach the French trenches, they are mowed down by French machine gun fire in a moving camera shot (from right to left) – the sequence of shots during the counter-attack are almost identical to the shots of the earlier French attack. Both sides are left in a stand-off AND in the same trenches where the battle began.
After the battle, Katczinsky reports that almost half of the company have been lost: “There’s 80 of us left. The rest is in dressing stations or pushing up daisies.” Ironically, the cook, who has prepared a meal for 150 soldiers, is upset that he wasn’t notified that there would be fewer soldiers eating. The troops are fed and given a day’s rest, but they expect to return to the front the following day.
Although the young soldiers agree that “the French certainly deserve to be punished for starting this war,” blame is conveniently placed on “somebody else.” German soldier Tjaden asks: “Well, how do they start a war?” Another answers: “Well, one country offends another.” Tjaden asks: “How could one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” The soldier qualifies his answer: “Well, stupid. One people offends another.” Tjaden doesn’t know any Frenchmen or Englishmen personally – nobody has offended him:
Tjaden: Oh, that’s it. I shouldn’t be here at all. I don’t feel offended.
Katczinsky (joking): It don’t apply to tramps like you.
Tjaden: Good. Then I can be going home right away…The Kaiser and me…Me and the Kaiser felt just alike about this war. We didn’t neither of us want any war, so I’m going home. He’s there already.
Soldier: Somebody must have wanted it. Maybe it was the English. No, I don’t want to shoot any Englishman. I never saw one ’til I came up here. And I suppose most of them never saw a German ’til they came up here. No, I’m sure they weren’t asked about it.
Another Soldier: Well, it must be doing somebody some good.
Tjaden: Not me and the Kaiser.
Soldier: I think maybe the Kaiser wanted a war.
Tjaden: You leave us out of this.
Katczinsky: I don’t see that. The Kaiser’s got everything he needs.
Soldier: Well, he never had a war before. Every full-grown Emperor needs one war to make him famous. Why, that’s history.
Paul: Yeah, Generals too. They need war.
A Third Soldier: And manufacturers. They get rich.
One of the soldiers compares war to a “fever”: “Nobody wants it in particular. And then all at once, here it is. We didn’t want it. The English didn’t want it. And here we are fighting.” Katczinsky explains how wars should really be fought:
I’ll tell ya how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field (and sell tickets). Yeah, and, and, on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let ’em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.
In a memorable scene in the makeshift crowded hospital in a French cathedral, Paul visits his wounded, dying buddy Kemmerick who lies in pain in the dying room. He complains that there are robbers – his watch has been stolen, and he wonders about the pain in every toe on his right foot. Unaware that his leg has been amputated, he suddenly realizes that his leg is gone. With a startled cry, he moans: “They’ve cut my leg off. Why didn’t they tell me?…I can’t walk any more.”
One of the visiting comrades admires Kemmerick’s new boots and asks: “What good are they to you? I could use them…” After the group leaves, Paul lingers behind and is asked by the dying man: “Do you think I’ll ever get well?” Kneeling at his bedside, Paul prays for his pal: “Oh God. This is Franz Kemmerick, only 19 years old. He doesn’t want to die. Please don’t let him die.” As Kemmerick dies, a callous, death-weary doctor/surgeon cannot attend to him. The camera focuses on the boots as Paul leaves the hospital and brings them to his friend Muller after Kemmerick’s death. As the new owner of the boots puts them on his feet, Paul is stunned by what he has witnessed:
I saw him die. I didn’t know what it was like to die before! And then, then I came outside and it felt so good to be alive, that I started in to walk fast. I began to think of the strangest things like bein’ out in the fields, things like that. You know, girls. Then it felt as if there were something electric running from the ground up through me. And I started. And I began to run hard and I passed soldiers, and I heard voices calling to me, and I ran and I ran, and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe enough air into me. And now I’m hungry.
In a masterful montage, the boots are passed from one soldier’s feet to another as each new owner dies wearing them.
During idle moments, the soldiers think about being home, or how useless their training was: “They never taught us anything really useful, like how to light a cigarette in the wind, or make a fire out of wet wood, or bayonet a man in the belly…” Their original class of German schoolboys has been decimated:
Out of 20, three are officers, nine dead, Muller and three others wounded, and one in the mad house. We’ll all be dead someday so let’s forget it.
In another moving, powerful scene during a bombardment, the Germans are attacking through a church cemetery. “Yellow rat” Himmelstoss joins the attack and is only scratched, yet reacts as if mortally wounded. Soon after, he is killed by the blast of enemy shells. Knocked in the head and dazed, Paul takes cover in the church’s graveyard. Next to him, the insides of one of the coffins is blown out of the ground by an exploding shell and flung over him – a symbolic living grave. In another shell hole, Paul ducks down and crouches with his rifle and knife ready during the French counter-attack under heavy shell fire. When the French are retreating, one of the French soldiers (silent film comedian Raymond Griffith) jumps into the shell hole with him. Paul panics, holds the man with his left hand, and stabs him in the throat with the bayonet knife in his right hand.
In perhaps the most memorable, painfully bleak scene of the film, he becomes trapped in the shell hole with the mortally wounded Frenchman. He gags the soldier’s mouth to prevent him from crying out and signalling enemy troops. Paul attempts to wash his hands of the blood of the man. He cannot leave the crater during the ordeal because of overhead fire, and must remain with the groaning, dying man through the night as life slowly ebbs from the man. During the night, light from the explosions illuminates the grotesque, dying face of the enemy.
Filled with remorse and emotional-spiritual agony, he tries desperately to “atone” for the murder. He approaches the slowly-dying man and offers: “I want to help you. I want to help you.” He moistens a cloth with water from the shell hole and brings it to the Frenchman’s lips. In the morning, he can’t stand hearing the dying man’s groans any longer: “Stop that,” he screams. “I can’t listen to that. Why do you take so long to die? You’re going to die anyway.” Then, after realizing his commonality with the fallen soldier, he begins to wish that the man will live and return home safely: “No, no. You won’t die. No, no, You won’t die. They’re only little wounds. You’ll get home. You’ll be all right. You’ll get home long before I will.”
Paul brings more water for the man to sip, but it is too late. An unforgettable close-up catches the dead man’s face in a half-smile with a staring, accusatory look through his wide-opened eyes. Anguished, Paul speaks to the man:
You know I can’t run away. That’s why you accuse me. I tell you I didn’t want to kill you. I tried to keep you alive. If you jumped in here again, I wouldn’t do it.
Paul delivers an impassioned speech to the man, pleading for forgiveness from the corpse of the soldier he has killed. In other circumstances, the Frenchman could have been a friend or a comrade rather than the enemy:
You see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy – and I was afraid of you. But you’re just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me, comrade. Say that for me. Say you forgive me! Oh, no, you’re dead! Only you’re better off than I am – you’re through – they can’t do any more to you now. Oh, God! why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If they threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. You’ll have to forgive me, comrade. I’ll do all I can. I’ll write to your parents.
Paul searches in the man’s pockets and finds a picture of the dead man’s wife and child. To the dead man, named Gerald Duval, he promises that he will take care of his family and then breaks down sobbing: “I’ll write to your wife. I’ll write to her. I promise she’ll not want for anything. And I’ll help her, and your parents, too. Only forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me….” When night-time finally comes again, Paul escapes back to his own lines.
Remorsefully, Paul tells Katczinsky that he stabbed and killed a man, his first in hand-to-hand combat. Katczinsky reassures him: “You couldn’t do anything about it. We all have to kill. We can’t help it. That’s what we are here for…Now don’t you lose any more sleep over this business.” Paul makes a guilt-relieving excuse: “Maybe it was because I was out there with him so long, huh?…After all, war is war.”
During a brief interlude in the horrible war, the soldiers have a chance to drink beer and sing German songs in a tavern. While taking a bath in a canal that day, four of them spot three French farm girls on the other bank. A German guard forbids them to cross the canal when they attempt to offer the girls a loaf of bread and a roll of sausage. Later that night, Paul, Albert, and Leer rendezvous with the peasant girls, arriving naked after a moonlight swim. They have shed their clothes to get across the canal. After being given dresses to wear, they trade bread and sausages for the girls’ company during the romantic idyll.
Marching on their way to a new offensive, Paul suffers a near-fatal wound in his side and Albert’s leg is shattered. They are both taken to a behind-the-lines Catholic hospital staffed by nuns. When Albert comes off the anesthesia after his leg has been amputated, he complains of pain in his extremity – suddenly, his eyes widen and he remembers that this was the same complaint he heard another soldier making under similar circumstances. Nervously, he asks: “Did they cut my leg off?” When he tilts a small hand-mirror above his head at an adroit angle to look down, he reacts in horror to his missing leg: “I won’t be a cripple. I won’t live, I tell you…I’ll kill myself the first chance I get! I won’t live! I won’t live!”
After recovering, Paul is given leave to return to his small hometown and civilian life. When he enters the front door of his home, the bright sunlight streams through, and his sister Anna (Marian Clayton) rushes down the stairs to embrace him. During the protagonist’s homecoming, it upsets him to find a peaceful and complacent world with which he now has little contact. After learning that his mother (Beryl Mercer in the sound version of the film, who replaced comedic actress ZaSu Pitts who was originally cast in the role) is bedridden, he visits with her by her bedside where she is overwhelmed by his presence: “Here I lie crying instead of being glad.”
She doesn’t believe her “baby” is really there:
Oh, Paul. You’re a soldier now, aren’t you? Somehow, I don’t seem to know you…Are you really here Paul? You won’t disappear, will you?
He gives her the impression that the front isn’t as bad as she imagines. While he changes into civilian clothes in his boyhood room, he looks at his mounted butterfly collection on the wall.
In the beer cellar, Paul’s father (Edwin Maxwell) toasts an introduction to honor his son:
But we know how to honor the soldier who goes on in spite of love and death.
His father’s elderly friends are still belligerent, banal, and out of touch with the realities of war: “And how are things out there? Terrible, eh? Terrible. But we must carry on. After all, you at least get decent food out there. Naturally it’s worse here. Naturally but the best for our soldiers all the time. That’s our motto: ‘The best for our soldiers.’ But you must give the Frenchies a good licking,” one of them tells Paul. Looking at a map of the Western Front on a table, Paul is told how Germany must strike ahead to win the war before the ‘boys’ can come home: “There’s the line. It runs so. Shove ahead out there, and don’t stick to that everlasting trench warfare.” Paul understates the truth: “When you get in it, war isn’t the way it looks back here.” The ignorant old gentleman discounts Paul’s experience in the war: “Oh! You don’t know anything about it. Of course, you’re needed. But this relates to the whole, and you can’t judge that. Of course, you do your duty and you risk your life. But for that, you receive the highest honor.” Gesturing at the paper map, the elderly men argue over the best war strategy. Paul leaves the table – they don’t even notice his disappearance.
False, out-of-touch, romantic ideas of war still persist in his former school. He hears, through the open window of his old schoolroom, the same teacher Professor Kantorek, still glorifying war to a new group of young students – potential soldiers, that they can “save the Fatherland.” The teacher notices Paul in uniform at the door to the classroom. To prove all that the instructor has lectured on, the seasoned soldier is introduced to the boys:
Here is one of the first to go, a lad who sat before me on these very benches who gave up all to serve in the first year of the war. One of the iron youth who have made Germany invincible in the field. Look at him, sturdy and bronze and clear-eyed, the kind of soldier every one of you should envy.
The teacher urges Paul to address the starry-eyed, astonished lads in the classroom and deliver a patriotic speech:
Professor: You must speak to them. You must tell them what it means to serve your Fatherland.
Paul: No, no, I can’t tell them anything.
Professor: You must Paul, just a word. Just tell them how much they’re needed out there. Tell them why you went and what it meant to you.
Paul: I can’t say anything.
Professor: Can’t you remember some deed of heroism, some touch of nobility to tell about?
Contrary to his Professor’s wishes, Paul delivers a non-glamorized, pacifist declaration and speaks about what it means to realistically serve the Fatherland in war. He describes life in the trenches and what war is really like:
Paul: I can’t tell you anything you don’t know. We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed. Sometimes we are. That’s all.
Professor: No, no Paul.
Paul: I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
Professor: But that’s not what one dwells on, Paul.
Paul: I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?
Paul is branded a coward and hissed and booed by the class of boys, but Paul knows better:
Paul: You asked me to tell them how much they’re needed out there. (To the boys) He tells you, ‘Go out and die,’ you know. But if you’ll pardon me, it’s easier to say ‘go out and die’ than it is to do it.
One of the boys: Coward.
Paul: And it’s easier to say it than to watch it happen.
All the boys together (some rise to their feet): You’re a coward.
Professor: No! No! Boys! Boys! (To Paul) I’m sorry about that, but I must say…
Paul: There’s no use talking like this. You won’t know what I mean – only, it’s been a long while since we enlisted out of this classroom. So long, I thought maybe the whole world had learned by this time. Only now, they’re sending babies, and they won’t last a week. I shouldn’t have come on leave. Up at the front, you’re alive or you’re dead and that’s all. And you can’t fool anybody about that very long. And up there, we know we’re lost and done for, whether we’re dead or alive. Three years we’ve had of it, four years, and every day a year, and every night a century. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you. I shouldn’t have come on leave. I’ll go back tomorrow. I’ve got four days more, but I can’t stand it here. I’ll go back tomorrow.
His words are wasted on the new recruits, who have already been indoctrinated for the war machine. Almost with relief, Paul decides to return to the front four days before his leave has expired.
In a sad farewell scene just before he goes, his ill mother caresses his head and wishes that he would stay longer. She warns him about loose women: “There’s something I want to say to you, Paul. It’s just be on your guard against the women out there. They’re no good.” Paul reassures her: “Where we are, there aren’t any women, Mother.” His mother is fearful of his return: “Be very careful at the front, Paul…I’ll pray for you every day and if you could get a job that’s not quite so dangerous.” With tears in her eyes, she kisses him goodbye, after telling him that she has put two new pairs of warm wool underwear in his pack.
A few old comrades are still alive in his second company unit, but it is mostly filled with replacement recruits – the camera pans across the faces of young, green, sixteen year-old lads like he was once – and not so many months ago. Paul finds that most of his company have been killed except for Tjaden who is gratified to see him: “It’s gonna be a real war again.” The company is short on food and supplies: “There used to be some food in the sawdust. Now it’s all sawdust. No joke either.” Tjaden is discouraged by the raw, inexperienced soldiers unlike the old-timers of the second company: “Replacements are all like that. Not even old enough to carry a pack. All they know how to do is die.”
To foreshadow Katczinsky’s death, Tjaden tells Paul: “If he were out, the war would be over. You remember what he always said: ‘They’re savin’ him for the last.'” Katczinsky is found alive – out foraging to feed the young replacements on an open road about two miles away: “trying to collect something to make soup with.” The old soldier is pleased to see his friend and seasoned comrade on the day of his return. Paul describes his difficult adjustment period at home:
Paul: Oh, I’m no good for back there any more, Kat. None of us are. We’ve been in this too long. The young men thought I was a coward because I told them that we learned that death is stronger than duty to one’s country. The old men said: ‘Go on! Push on to Paris!’ My father even wanted me to wear my uniform around him. It’s not home back there anymore. All I could think of was: ‘I’d like to get back and see Kat again.’ You’re all I’ve got left, Kat.
Kat: I’m not much to have left. I missed you Paul.
Paul: At least we know what it’s all about out here. There are no lies here.
Kat: ‘Push on to Paris’? You ought to see what they’ve got on the other side. They eat white bread over there. They’ve got dozens of airplanes to our one. And tanks that’ll go over anything. And what have we got? Guns so worn they’ve dropped shells on our own men. No food, no ammunition, no officers. ‘Push on to Paris’? So that’s the way they talk back there.
After they talk for a while, they walk back to the unit. On the way, a plane’s bomb wounds Kat’s kneecap. Paul interprets the injury as good luck: “That means the war’s over,” but Kat thinks the war will be over when he is really dead. Paul carries the wounded gruff veteran strung over his shoulders. Another aerial attack from an enemy plane explodes a bomb behind them. Paul shouts into the sky: “You can’t get both of us in one day!” As he brings Kat to safety, Paul doesn’t immediately realize that the older soldier has already died from a bomb splinter in the neck from the second plane attack. He continues talking to the corpse across his shoulders, reminiscing about the mentoring he received as a young recruit from Kat on “how to dodge shells” in his first bombardment.
In a heart-rending, effective scene, Paul lays Kat down and goes to get water from him to drink, but another soldier tells him not to bother: “Spare yourself the trouble. He’s dead.” Paul tries to get the dead man to drink water anyway, not wanting to believe the inevitable. Asked if he is related to Kat, Paul responds in a dull voice: “No, we’re not related.” Paul walks away from the tent, dazed and emotionally anguished over the death.
In the unforgettable final moments of the film, just before the “all quiet on the western front” armistice and with all of his comrades gone, soldiers are bailing water out of a dilapidated trench. The faint sound of a harmonica can be heard. Paul is sitting alone, daydreaming inside the trench on a seemingly peaceful, bright day. He is exhausted by terror and boredom. Through the gunhole of his trench, he sees a beautiful lone butterfly that has landed just beyond his reach next to a discarded tin can outside the parapet. He begins to carefully reach out over the protection of his bunker with his hand to grasp it, momentarily forgetting the danger that is ever-present. As he stretches his hand out yearning for its beauty, a distant French sniper prepares to take careful aim through a scope on a rifle. As he leans out closer to the butterfly and extends his hand, suddenly the sharp whining sound of a shot is heard. Paul’s hand jerks back , twitches for a moment and then goes limp in death. [The hand actually belonged to director Lewis Milestone who shot the scene and included his own hand in the final print. The scene was suggested to Milestone by Czech cinematographer Karl Freund.]
All is silent and quiet. The harmonica tune stops.
In the film’s grim epilogue, there is the haunting image of a dark, battle-scarred hillside covered with a sea of white crosses. Across the corpse-strewn fields, a super-imposed ghostly view emerges of Paul and his comrade soldiers in a column marching obliquely away from the camera toward a void. They are ghostly soldiers who, one by one, look back with bitterness, sadness and accusation in their eyes.