All Quiet on the Western Front

Warning: only the original 1930 version of this film is worth watching. This classic, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930, is based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War. It tells the story of a German footsoldier in the war, Paul, who joins the army in the fervour of schoolboy patriotism, but eventually comes to question everything he had believed about the glory of war. It is astonishing that an anti-war movie from the perspective of a German soldier was produced in Hollywood only a dozen years after the armistice. But, for me, an even greater achievement is that it contains the most moving empathetic episode in cinema history. It happens when Paul stabs a French soldier in the trenches, and is forced to spend hours watching the man die before his eyes. The result is that Paul comes to realise that the soldier is just another human being like him, with a family, with hopes and fears, with a name. This moment of empathic recognition is a turning point for Paul, from which he can never return.

Some people might find the film a little slow by today’s standards, but I think it still retains its power. It’s worth remember the enormous impact of this film, which turned tens of thousands of people into pacifists (including the main actor, Lew Ayers), and which was deemed so incendiary that it was banned by many governments around the world for encouraging anti-war and anti-patriotic feeling.

Undoubtedly one of the most empathic and humane films to come out of Hollywood.

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Lewis Milestone
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