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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

All quiet on the western front

Have you seen a movie likely to make a major impact on you ? Well, you may have seen some, granted. This movie is one that is a must see, there are very few movies that depict the futility and hopelessness of war like this one. For war mongers sitting at the back, this movie and the associated novel are a must see (and I am not trying to be political right now).
All quite on the western front has been on the Top 100 English movies list for a long time now, and it is in fact a very old movie. The movie is based on a book published in Germany by 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque called 'Im Westen nichts Neues'. The book had incredible sales, selling 2.5 million copies in different languages within 18 months. The book in turned inspired the movie in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone. The movie won the best Best Picture and Best Director award, and was the first talking movie to win an Oscar.
The movie was seen as generically anti-war and anti-German (being set on German soldiers) and was banned by the Nazis. There have been many movies set on war zones, and many of them glorify or justify the concept of war, but this was a vehemently anti-war movie. The movie stars Lew Ayres in the pivotal role of Paul Baumer, and stars Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, and others.
The movie is set in Germany, with a group of schoolboys getting encouragement to join the army by their professor (Arnold Lucy set in a jongoistic role) in the backdrop of a military parade happening outside. These are young enthusiastic boys, and encouraged by the charm of fighting for their country, the enlist. However, their enthusiasm soon dies down in the hard training that they undergo at the hands of their sadistic drill sergeant, Himmelstoss (the ex-postman). He makes them undergo a variety of hard training during the course, enough that when they are about to leave, they get revenge by dumping him in the mud.
These still enthusiastic new soldiers reach the frontline to the tune of enemy shells and are greeted by war-worn and highly cynical soldiers who are already fighting. The German army is already suffering from poor supplies and lack of food. At this point, another pivotal character of the movie, Sergeant Kat Katczinsky (famous for being able to find food) arrives with a pig and they all join in with gusto.
Their first mission, to string barbed wire at night. One famous scene from the movie is when they watch the truck leaving them and going back, a sense of poignancy. They get the first experience of a shell bursting nearby, and one of them shits in his pants. Kat offers them the most valuable advice at that point about what to do in case of shell attacks.
The first death - one of the new soldiers is blinded by the shell fire, and runs off in a panic towards the enemy side and is gunned down. To their shock, they are not allowed to get the body back, it's foolish to waste another life to get a body back. After all, it's just a corpse. They are already starting to learn about the waste and horrors of war.
At another time, they have to sit in a bunker with constantly exploding shells, and they start to crack. They have to co-exist with rats in the bunker, and to just to exist for days like that. In another scene of great profoundness, the French infantry charges and is held down by German machine-gun fire. Another touch of horror is brought forward to Paul when a grenade explodes in front of a French soldier reaching for the wire, and after the smoke clears, there are just the hands gripping the wire.
More horror, with close hand-to-hand combat between the Germans and French, and now many of the schoolboys have been killed.
The soldiers, directly involved in the war, start discussing it. This is a dialog, not very long, that captures the guts of the movie. They do not know why they are in the war, they did not know the enemy so hating them enough to have a war seems crazy, and they are sure that the French feel the same way.
War also makes people cold. Hence, when a person loses his legs, there are soldiers ready to ask for the shoes since the owner does not need them anymore. This is presented in a montage where the shoes are passed from one to another as the owners keep dying.
In another gripping moment, Paul encounters a French soldier who has jumped into his shell hole and Paul wounds him mortally. He has to stay there while the French soldier is slowly dying and it is a long wait. During this time, he becomes remorseful and tries to find out about the soldier's family in order to help them. He brings more water for the man to sip, but the soldier has died.
The effect of war on a growing up man is incredible. Paul gets leave to go home, but is unable to connect with anybody over there, he has had too many different kinds of experiences. In his school, he meets the professor who is still encouraging new students to join the war. Paul refuses to give them an encouraging talk, instead talking of the raw emotions of the war; and they call him a coward. They are still young and enthusiastic.
When he joins back, more of his company has been killed. In a discussion with Kat, he lays down his feelings about home and his trip. As they are walking back, Kat gets hit by a splinter and dies, but Paul does not know. He only gets to know when another soldier tells him. Death and destruction has claimed almost everybody he knew.
The final passing. Paul reaches from inside his trench for a butterfly, and a sniper shoots him. And hence the name of the movie. On this day, when Paul was killed, there was nothing much going on, and hence the report back was 'All quiet on the western front'. After all, what is one soldier's life.
In the classic ending of the movie, all the dead soldiers are marching away towards a void in a ghostly column, killed for they know not what.

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