Saving Private Baumer
Before Walter Cronkite brought Vietnam into our living rooms and CNN introduced us to Bosnia, the first hour of All Quiet on the Western Front might have mesmerized moviegoers. A group of German schoolboys whose names we barely catch are sent into the Great War’s “fields of honor” for long sequences of mass mayhem that are graphic if not gory. But with no focus on one or even a handful of characters, Quiet is strangely uninvolving until it begins to concentrate on young Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).
Perhaps we’ve become so inured to violence that it must be made personal for us now — the violence itself isn’t shocking anymore unless it’s affecting someone we know. Watching long shots of hordes of nameless, indistinguishable soldiers shooting and bayoneting one another is simply boring. Baumer’s story eventually saves Quiet for modern viewers, putting a face to the lost innocence of an entire generation of European boys.
Seduced to war by their elders, who appeal to the young’s unthinking patriotism and the prospect of being heroes, Paul and his friends ride off to the battlefields full of enthusiasm for adventure, guns, and fighting. (A schoolteacher who riles up Paul’s class is disturbingly Hitler-esque — in a movie made years before Hitler’s real rise to power.) In time, of course, they are beaten down emotionally and physically not just by the horrors of battle but by near starvation, attacks by rats in the trenches, long stretches of boredom, and separation from family and friends. One particularly poignant scene sees Paul and his friends risk courts martial to take comfort in the arms of a group of French girls — essentially the enemy. When Paul eventually goes home for a leave, he finds himself so hardened that he returns to his company early, unable to bear the ministrations of his mother and the pompous declarations on the state of the war from men too old for the front.
From a contemporary point of view, All Quiet on the Western Front is more ironic than its makers could have intended. Its audience is now as toughened as Paul became, mostly because his War to End All Wars didn’t.
Oscars Outstanding Production 1929/30
AFI 100 (1998 list): #54
unforgettable movie moment:
A soldier reaches for a butterfly across a rubble-strewn battlefield.