All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/1930)

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.

 

Theme:  War

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

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is what I was afraid of when I first decided I would watch all the Best Pictures: that I would feel like I was wasting my time. It’s especially noticeable when you sit down to watch a film that’s three hours and forty-two minutes long, like Lawrence of Arabia. I feared the tedium of seeing through a task that I’d set for myself, to watch this movie whether I liked it or not. Of doing something without a clear purpose, only for some arbitrary reason.

Yeah, I could have given up on it halfway through, like one of those times I paused to take a break or to see how much more of it there was to get through, only to discover that I had two and a half more hours of this. But I’m stubborn that way. This was a classic, recommended to me by movie buffs, and I was going to look for the proof of its brilliance.

I don’t regret finishing the movie, but I don’t really think I appreciated it much more by the end of it. For starters, I had a bit of difficulty following the story. Truth is, I don’t know much about this period of history, in this place – the Middle East during World War I – and one positive result of watching the movie is that it piqued my interest in reading more about it: the role the Ottoman Empire played in the region, the aftermath of the Arab Uprising, how the European powers contributed to the upheaval in the Middle East in ways that clearly resonate today. Sometimes that’s the best a film can do, make you want to know more about something.

One thing that a good film can offer is simple beauty, and there’s definitely much to be found in the long, lingering shots of dunes. Sometimes the only traces you find of the people at all are tiny silhouettes of camels, or the lone straight lines of footsteps in the sand. Someone I know from Saudi Arabia once referred to himself and his nation as “desert people,” and I don’t think I fully appreciated the sense of that until seeing that expanse of space. I’m from a place where there’s not much empty space in between the parts that contain people or clear signs of civilization, so it’s hard for me to fathom living in a region that lacks so much of both.

Also, I’m having trouble deciding whether Lawrence was intended to be portrayed as a heroic figure, or if we’re meant to come out of it thinking he’s kind of an asshole. Maybe both, if the funeral scene at the beginning is any indication. All the same, I couldn’t get a handle on his character’s journey by the end of it. His actions, from his seemingly random decisions to leave the people and then to return, came off as nonsensical to me.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity given to many of the Arabian characters. My impression of a film from the sixties is that non-white characters are naturally given less of a sense of their own agency than white characters. Considering that the film was peopled by a large cast, there was an interesting range of personalities, portrayed as having their own motives. True, most of them were played by white actors, which is certainly problematic. And then there was the bizarre worship of Lawrence, resplendent in his white heroic garb. But I suppose I expected worse.

It does raise an important question, though, in light of this week’s Oscar nominations. Should I be more surprised about how much diversity exists in a film from fifty years ago, or that so little exists in Oscar-nominated films today? What sort of progress have we made in that period of time? (Answer: none.) How is this restriction of diversity in one field reflective of greater American culture, and how do we improve? I don’t know the answer to these questions. That sort of goes beyond the scope of my intentions with this blog, which was essentially: let’s write our silly little thoughts about movies.

I was thinking about a good movie to pair this with – something that addresses war in the Middle East today, of which there are several possibilities? Another cult of personality film? Or another epic (read: long) film that spans space or time. I think I found something that balances well against this one, and a theme that I’d like to think about: going native.