FF44 - All Quiet on the Western Front

Intro by John Roderick

On November 11th 1918 the armistice that marked the end of the First World War was declared. In honor of this week's 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of that peace we have temporarily suspended our otherwise sacrosanct policy of randomly selecting our next film in order to feature this antiwar cinema classic. It's never a bad time in my estimation to reflect on the world shaping tragedy of World War I. Although it might seem like a conflict from long ago, there were plenty of lessons learned there that it would be a shame to have to learn again the hard way. We spend a lot of time speculating whether the Holocaust could ever happen again, but could prideful conflicts between nation states explode into a global war of attrition where an entire generation feeds itself into a meat grinder? How fertile is your imagination?

I have to admit I worked for a while on this intro and tried to put in some usual sass, but it fell flat. World War I has always felt very personal to me. My grandfather my grandmother met in France during the war. He was an infantry officer and she was there to sing and entertain the troops. She wrote a book about her experiences called "Nightingale in the Trenches", but no one's ever read it because it is just a journal gossiping its entire length about who the handsome officers were and how General Pershing couldn't dance the foxtrot. But she sang for the troops up at the front and was awarded a French Order of Merit.

My grandfather fought there and many years afterwards he wrote about the war on his portable typewriter: Poems and stories. First in the VA hospital in L.A. and then slowly withering away in a succession of flea bitten SRO hotels. This was in the 1950s. I still have his onionskin pages. My father couldn't read them. Although he tried to stay hardy and manly, my grandfather's tone is unmistakably that of someone irrevocably broken. My great uncle was there too and he spoke to me in war-French as a child and taught me to sing Over There and How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm. To him the war was best remembered as a jest.

Even now in 2018 my 92 year old uncle Jack is still trying to reconcile his father's experience there. He talks to me about the old stories and how my grandfather bayoneted a German and looked in his eyes as though replaying that story now will help him understand better his father who died 60 years ago. My uncle, whom I love, still transmitting his father's injury and his own bruise from it 100 years after the fact. So this war did far more damage to my family than the second war. And all of this I feel acutely and have felt my whole life, even though both of my grandparents were dead long before I could ask them about it.

I remember World War I vets, their old mothy clothes and their tarnished medals. I watched them grow old, very old and heard their songs and in a few cases attended their funerals. I never heard any of them tell a single war story beyond recounting singing and dancing an endless wine. I know that my people all fought at Belleau Wood and on the Marne and they were there for that last wave of insanity-producing explosions and a the hail of bullets in the mud and the rats, but they were young and mostly unconscious of the fact that the patrimony of Europe was being dismembered and thrown like a raw chicken to a dozen Rat Terriers. Even my own shell-shocked grandfather couldn't see the war itself as anything less than heroic. He never connected his own shattered life to having stood amidst the Belle Époque in the Pax Britannica and the gilded age all being ground to hamburger and flung into a latrine.

But as the old saying goes: Repeatedly going over the top and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. The takeaway for that generation that fought in those trenches, even as they croaked their patriotic songs was that war was the enemy. Good God Y'all! And that was true for veterans on all sides of the conflict. Although the allies are ostensibly the victors, the inescapable conclusion was that the war was utterly pointless and it squandered millions of lives with no result other than the impoverishment and spiritual devastation of all involved.

And that was the thesis of the bestselling novel All Quiet on the Western Front, written in German, which spawned this movie of the same name. In it we follow a group of bright-eyed German students who all speak in perfect clipped mid-Atlantic accents, who are whipped into a frenzy by a vain gloriously patriotic schoolteacher who riles them up with nationalistic Latin mottos, because: You know how kids are! They all volunteer and go to war and are one by one destroyed. Paul, our main character takes a long time to emerge as the focus of the film as the camera seems just as interested in his compatriots, but as the war chews them up we're left with Paul.

His friendship with the older, more experienced Stanislaw is our anchor as he learns to fight and survive. In one of the darkest moments of the film Paul gets trapped in a crater in no-man's-land where he stabs a French soldier and then spends hours watching the man slowly die from his wounds, alternately caring for him humanely and wishing him dead. By the end of the movie Paul is emotionally eviscerated by the fighting. The battlefield is the only place he truly feels at ease. A brief furlough to his hometown discourages us all. The last shred of his youth turns to ashes, the myopic and war-boosting townspeople glad-hand him about the war. The final scene, just to really drive home the point that war is wretched and destroys everything, including the good in all of us, is Paul reaching over the lip of his trench to touch a butterfly, only to have a French sniper's bullet blow his head off. The end.

This movie is a fascinating historical artifact. It's a war film made during a period where most people thought such a war could never come again. Even then the seeds of the next war were taking root in Europe and Asia. That goes to show that like an alcoholic after an awful bender, we may swear off war forever in the immediate aftermath, but in this case less than 20 years later we picked up the bottle again. This movie is a buried treasure a different way, too, made before the Hays Code sanitized the way Hollywood depicted violence and despair. It was shot both as a talkie and as a silent film and it's the first talkie to win Oscars. The dawn of a new era!

For myself, the first war affects me as deeply as any war can, and I still feel the loss reverberating through the contemporary world and imagine what might have been. So let's take a look back 100 years at World War I that we maybe even today can derive some worthwhile admonition from the pointless farce of it all.

Never such innocence,
never before or since,
has changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
but thousands of marriages,
lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

(Last verse of MCMXIV by Phillip Larkin)

Death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. Today on Friendly Fire: All Quiet on the Western Front.

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