April is the cruelest month, and war is cruel, so I thought: what better than to focus on war movies throughout the month of April? I’ve selected one film from each decade to watch and comment on this month, in hopes of gaining perspective on how war is depicted differently through the years, and in the context of world events (which is to say, the wars of the real world).
First up is the classic anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front. If you’re like me, you probably had to read this book, written by Erich Maria Remarque, in school. I still remember the hard brown cover, that newsprint smell of books ordered in bulk by the school for English. While so many others in my classes hated forced reading, I just loved getting those sturdy books, even if I didn’t care much about the contents. I decided to re-read the book at the same time as viewing the movie (not quite literally, though I watched and read each in interlocking sections).
I’m glad I revisited the novel, if only to see what I recalled. The rats and lice stood out to me, then and now. The scene in which Paul is trapped in a pit with the Frenchman as he slowly bleeds to death also stand out as a key moment, both in its significance and ultimately meaninglessness. However, I definitely did not remember the scene where Paul and his fellow soldiers trade food for sex with a trio of French women. I was apparently a bit naïve, which is notable in itself that I was more inured to the realities of war than to sex.
Near the beginning of the film, a teacher quotes the Latin line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which may be familiar now to readers of the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Since that scene doesn’t appear in Remarque’s novel, I can only imagine that the filmmaker wanted us to recall that poem, about a soldier trudging back from the front line and into a gas attack. On either side of the war, soldiers do little more than suffer and die without reason.
I’m a little disappointed that the film version loses much of the interiority of the novel – it’s difficult to translate thoughts onto the screen, though some of Paul’s narrative is converted to dialogue. However, one thing that the film accomplishes very well is depicting the sounds and scenes of battle without commentary or over-dramatizing. There’s a scene in the middle showing a bombardment and attack, and it’s mostly silent but for the numbing onslaught of artillery. It really demonstrates how film can bring a scene to life, much differently than the CGI-filled movies of today.
There aren’t many films in popular culture that focus on World War I. So much has been written about the struggles and glory of World War II, and maybe that’s simply because it came in conjunction with the rise in popularity of movies and television. Or maybe we look back on the First World War as an unsuccessful first round, where we Americans didn’t quite manage to knock out the bad guys for good. Or, on the other hand, maybe Americans don’t see it as our war – we had less invested in it, and its survivors are now long gone.
What’s most striking to me is that film and book seems to be so popular with an American audience not in spite of its being about the German army, but because of it. There weren’t many who dared to criticize war, particularly on the side of the victors, and those few who did suffered for their efforts. In high school, I also read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, mostly thanks to Metallica, but it was definitely not school reading. Trumbo was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, but somehow did manage to bring the novel to film in 1971.
The lesson already seems obvious: War is cruel, yes, but only if you’re on the losing side. Otherwise, it’s worth every sacrifice.
Which War: World War I
First Time Watching? It’s quite possible I saw some of this in high school.
Final Verdict: Nothing to report in the West