We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That's all.
All Quiet on the Western Front is timeless in spite of the dated style typical of early talkies. At the time (1930), the acting profession was still adjusting to film, using actors schooled in the techniques of live theater. Screenwriting was in its infancy, too, and many of the conventions are obviously adapted straight from the stage.
The story is straight-forward. At the start of World War I, a college professor in an small, unnamed German village to put aside their studies and enlist, exhorting them to do their duty for the “glory of the fatherland.” Wide-eyed and innocent as a 21st Century 18-year-old could never be, his students do exactly that, including Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres). The film follows them through a brutal and degrading training at the hands of cruel martinet named Himmelstoss (John Wray), who used to be the village postman. Soon enough, they are sent to the front. The veterans don’t want too much to do with the new recruits, because “they’ll be dead soon, just like the others.” The exception is Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), who tries to impart to the frightened young men some of the skills they’ll need to survive. They start to take casualties on their first routine mission and that sets the pattern for the next four years. Some of them are killed, others maimed, while some just go crazy. They scrounge for food, occasionally bed a local girl and generally try to keep their heads down. Through this Paul quickly transforms from a naïve, idealistic boy into a fatalistic survivor.
Wounded late in the war, he returns home to find himself sickened by the unrealistic warmongering by those who have no idea what things are like at the front. He returns to his old class room and the same professor asks him to the tell the student glorious tales from the front. Instead, he gives them an unvarnished account of the pointlessness of the fighting and is branded a coward by the boys in the class.
Ultimately, Paul returns to the front, feeling that it is now the only world he knows.
The battle scenes are vivid and violent, especially for the period. The film captures the pointless back-and-forth nature of trench warfare as well as any film I’ve seen about the “Great War.” Even 75 years later, All Quiet on the Western Front is still the definitive film about World War I.