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Published January 21, 2011 in Movies by Zach Varnell
Romanticized war ends in tragedy for a generation of German youth. [Dir: Lewis Milestone/ Louis Wolheim, Lewis Ayres, John Wray/ 136 min/ Action-Adventure, Drama/ Anti-War]
“Our country calls! The fatherland needs leaders! Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country!” So exhorted by their zealously nationalistic teacher, a class of young German students enlist in the army at the beginning of World War I. The film follows them through the war years as they increasingly question the morality and usefulness of their actions and one by one fall victim to enemy fire. At first, these new enlistees are very enthusiastic. They are full of patriotism and romantic ideas of battle. But nothing about war turns out to be as they imagined (or were told) it would be. After some though and sadistic training, they are sent to the front and arrive to find a muddy, barbarous, disorganized hell. The seasoned troops they join are undisciplined and cynical. There is no food and little time for rest. All around is the horror of death and the constant unending noise of the bombardment. They spend their days and nights not in grand conquest but in simply trying to survive. And one by one they die. Worst of all, they don’t know why they die. In a discussion at one point in the film, they are trying to figure out why the war was started, but none among them can really say. Likewise, they are also uncertain about why they kill. In probably the best and most telling scene of the film, a soldier stabs an enemy soldier in the course of battle, mortally wounding him. Suddenly machine gun fire opens up and the two are trapped together, unable to leave the trench in which they were fighting. As the wounded soldier slowly dies, his attacker begins to regret stabbing him, tries to save him, and in the end tearfully pledges to make amends. All this makes for a terrifically poignant indictment of war, self-sacrifice, and naïve participation in state action. The story is particularly effective because it focuses not only on the horror and privation of combat, but also on the contrast between civilian enthusiasm for was and the soldiers’ eventual repugnance of it. This is a first-rate film, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Director Lewis Milestone gave it a strongly realistic flavor by filming it in genuinely rough conditions and by casting twenty-year-old unknowns and actual World War I veterans in most of the parts. On the down side, modern viewers may find its 1930s acting style somewhat stilted. Nonetheless, this film’s message is so timeless and is delivered with such flair that governments preparing for war have sometimes paid it the ultimate compliment – by banning it. The film won two Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
This article was reprinted from Jon Osborne's Miss Liberty's Guide to Film and Video: Movies for the Libertarian Millenium, available in the Advocates Liberty Store.