Perhaps one of the most well known of the earliest Best Picture winners was the ultimate anti-war film, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Based on the German novel, the film follows a group of young German soldiers who are encouraged to enlist in the army by their teacher during the First World War. The film is American, but sticks to the original nationality of the characters. Despite this: this film is not about right or wrong, about Germans or Americans, or about heroism of any type, but about the utter futility of war.
The world had not seen a war like this and the film brings to life the realism of what encouraged young men to enlist, what they experienced, and how those at home reacted when they gave honest accounts of what the reality of war was like.
The first scene is particularly memorable: a teacher through clever speech encourages the young men to enlist. Forgetting the benefit of hindsight, this film shows exactly how war must have appealed to these students: the excitement, the national pride, the camaraderie. It also shows what a much larger place the world was in 1914 as this was the only chance that these men would have to see the world.
Of course, the realities are different, and the experiences of the war are shown through a series of scenes in which the hardships and brutal experiences are exhibited. From the training camp to the actual front, the war is not what the soldiers expected. The reality of war is most evident in a wonderful scene between the protagonist, Paul (the excellent Lew Ayers) and a Frenchman who he shoots and then tries to save when they are trapped together. There are no sides in this most humane of scenes, just the inevitability of death.
Death, of course, happens to several of the young group, and this understandably has a profound effect on Paul. The opening scene is contrasted beautifully, when he goes back to his former school and talks about the war. The new students and the former teacher are horrified, not by his tales, but by his attitude which is not patriotic.
The film, however, never becomes preachy. The facts of war are obvious, and Milestone shows experiences, but does not hammer home the point, and from that point, it is a very intelligent film, never underestimating the audience and never stopping to bask in its own self-importance. In many ways it is a very simple film: there is no complex storyline, but it still manages to deal with complex issues, and that is what makes this film such a success, and so timeless.
It is, in my mind, the third greatest Best Picture winner from the 1930s (with still ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ to come), but I think it feels in many ways, the least dated. The structure is similar to ‘The Hurt Locker’ in that a series of episodes paint a picture rather than provide a narrative, and the theme is timeless: whereas the methods have combat have changed since this film was made, the greater issues are the same, and that is what makes the film so watchable and so relevant.