Many consider All Quiet on the Western Front one of the best anti-war films ever made. In 1930 it won Oscar for both Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). But has the legendary film ever lived up to its reputation?
Last time I saw it was in November 2008, 90 years after the end of the First World War. This year, of course, marks the centennary for the outbreak of the Great War, which for me is a fine oppurtunity to reflect on the film’s impact once more. I’m a historian at The Arkivet Foundation (Stiftelsen Arkivet), a center for historical reflection and peacebuilding located in the former state archive building in Kristiansand used as a regional headquarters by the Gestapo from 1942 to 1945. Our collection of time witness films related to WWII counts more than 450 interviews with resistance fighters, prisoners, members of Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling, war sailors, Holocaust survivors, German soldiers, children at war, children of Norwegian mothers and German fathers, collaborators, and observers. Exceptionally many of them mention the meeting with Milestone’s adaptation of the German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s novel from 1929 as a watershed experience. Some say explicitly that the film clearly made them reject the glorification of war and militarism. Others point out that the film was en eye-opener because of its realistic, terrifying approach. I believe that the film had broad contemporary appeal, and that its popularity went across political , social, cultural and economic divisions. Since the interwar period in Norwegian history is so characterised by these divisions, this fact may seem puzzling, or even seen as a paradox.
The original film from 1930 had a brief run in German cinemas in the 1930s before it was banned by the Nazis. Goebbels found the film anti-German and personally saw to it that the film’s producer was contacted in order to eliminate perceived anti-German messages. In 1939 there was made a new version of the film. This time, Germany put pressure on Norway and other countries to avoid that the film was imported and shown in cinemas.
In Norway it seems that the American film made an impression – on everyone. Future resistance fighters (such as war sailor Peder Rørvik who participated in the D-Day operation) as well as Norwegians who served as soldiers for Hitler (such as Eivind Saxlund). There are a few examples where it led to pacifist attitudes. And then I must hasten to add: which never was the filmmakers’ intention! Maybe with one exception. Lead star Lew Ayres himself amazingly enough got his actor career destroyed during the next world war – because he was a conscientious objector.
To Americans pacifism is un-national. Several classic films treat this theme in an interesting way, but always with the same outcome: violence must be solved with violence. Gary Cooper plays the lead role in two of them. In director Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York from 1941 he plays the naive country boy who goes from being a pacifist to beat the military at their own game. Hawks’ film dealt with America’s entry into the First World War, but must be seen as an attempt to influence public opinion towards entry into WWII prior to Pearl Harbour. 15 years later Gary Cooper played more or less the same role in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, but this time the story takes place around the Civil War in the 1860s. A third is Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which is often referred to as an anti-war film.
Is it possible to make war film for peace ? I remember the cheeky phrase from many a knapsack cover from my school days: “Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.”
When it comes to ideas and conceptions about war and peace in our part of the world, the importance of Remarque’s book and Milestone’s film could hardly be overestimated . The film both foreshadows and represents the modern and feels very important. Still.