Understandably the winner of Outstanding Picture in 1929/30, what a pity that Lewis Milestone’s epic recreation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (along with the writing trust of Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews and Gardner Sullivan) wasn't taken to heart, mind and soul by world leaders everywhere before unleashing might-vs.-right conquests of all persuasions: Syria being the most recent example.
The personal journey of pubescent schoolboy Paul (Lew Ayres) from indoctrinated recruit (“It is sweet to die for the Fatherland,” says his propaganda spewing teacher) through mud-filled basic training (which curiously includes a kiss between two sudden soldiers just prior to bayonet drill and a laughable revenge sequence that—along with the opening “edgy” brass band—are the film’s only real blemishes) to first-duty on the front lines frames the narrative.
Shot in historically reinforcing sepia, all of war’s horrors—and in particular the gruesome consequences of trench warfare—are paraded across the screen as the grizzled veterans (notably Louis Wolflheim’s gritty performance as Kat, who offers tough love to the newbies in hopes of saving at least a few of their lives) teach their—at first eager, then appalled, then chilled to the core—charges the dreadful art of kill-or-be-killed conflict.
Incredibly, unbelievably (yet pathetically backed up by statistics) both sides keep coming at each other in numbing suicidal style and frequency even as the writers work in scenes which afford their characters opportunities to discuss the overarching futility of their enterprise on behalf of elderly commanders who are too busy sending unwitting youth to early graves (in one unforgettable scene, the troops fall to their deaths in a church cemetery, sparing everyone the need for a proper burial) than to ever step onto the fields of carnage themselves. Or put succinctly: “And what good is it [war]?”
What little comic relief there is comes in the form of the amorous advances of a quartet of bathing privates attempting to win the charms (and beds) of a trio of buxom French farm girls and the requisite drink-till-we-fall-down-drunk antics of the fighting men on a rare break between “engagements.”
Sprinkled into the narrative mix are bouts of abject fear, madness and the terrible realization by Paul that—after a few years under his belt—his real family is back at the front rather than in the safety of home. What could be sadder than that as an outcome of armed bullying in the name of the few? JWR