It’s 1915 and Paul Bäumer (played by Richard Thomas) is a teenage student in Germany. He enjoys life in his town, his classes at school and fun with his classmates. Recently, World War I has broken out in France and on listening to the patriotic urgings of his teacher (by Donald Pleasence), Paul can’t wait to join the German Army and march into battle with his friends. His father is very proud and so envious that Paul will soon experience the comradeship and excitement of battle. Paul and his friends attend military training, overseen by the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss (by Ian Holm), and soon find themselves stationed at the Western Front in France. Their platoon leader is Stanislaus Katczinsky – “Kat” – (by Ernest Borgnine), a no-nonsense war veteran who tells them “forget everything you learned at military training, this is the real thing here … just listen to me”. He’s an invaluable guardian who teaches them everything they need to know. Over the weeks and months that follow, they experience the full horror of trench warfare – the endless French barrage, the untold casualties and the utter horror, which shocks and changes them all. They come to trust Kat more than anyone expected and unaware of the impact this life has on any of them, they become people they would scarcely have dreamed of being before this. The war drags on and on – after some years, as the carnage continues and young lives are wasted in their thousands, Paul’s unit is depleted to only a few men who have basically learned to survive on wits alone. Paul is wounded in a particularly prolonged assault and after recovery in a field hospital, he returns to his home and family for convalescence. He realises that although he has spent every day at the Front wishing he wasn’t there, upon his return home he doesn’t seem to fit in there either. So he returns to front-line duty and with “Kat” and his old squad for the final months of the war until the Armistice.
I like this movie – it’s not fun to watch, but it’s good. It takes a little while to get going, because the opening half hour necessarily sets the scene – the happy teenage life of the schoolmates, the village life, family life and school life of the key characters and the dynamics of this group. This is important for the ensuing drama. The contrast is well depicted – the unquestioning pride of the townsfolk when their soldiers head off to war, the rude awakening through military training and the stark reality that befalls the group when they reach the Front and discover the truth. The drama is balanced, there are positive times as well as very difficult times. Many scenes are graphic, some conflict sequences are too long, but apart from that it is all quite appropriate. Most interesting is the hipocracy of some people (particularly officers) involved in the conflict and the romanticised notions about war held by people who’ve never been. It is fascinating to watch and understand Paul Brummer’s behaviour when he returns home and must answer questions without hurting people and sit through the ignorant ramblings of men of the town with nothing but dreams to base their war stories on. This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque . Make no mistake, the key message is not nice, but clear – “A young soldier and his schoolmates face profound disillusionment in the soul-destroying horror of World War I”. It is a very good movie
Made in 1979. Directed by Delbert Mann