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The fighters films: the movies made by those who fought in the Great War

Soldiers take refuge in trenches in the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

TERENCE BUTLER looks back at the films produced in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the message they conveyed.

The poetry and literature of the First World War remain staples of exam syllabuses to this day, helping to shape modern understanding of the conflict. Yet the films produced in its immediate aftermath have faded into the background.

This is a shame, because the message they communicated was every bit as powerful as those better remembered poems and novels, communicating a fierce anger about the war and its consequences, with film-makers often fighting studio and political interference in order to remain true to literary and historical sources.

The First World War was being addressed by cinema before it was even over. The French socialist Jean Jaurès had warned about developments in armaments; and Abel Gance’s J’accuse! (released in 1919) brought home the resulting devastation by having French soldiers back from the front – many of whom were to die at Verdun – portray dead soldiers rising from graves. Former combatants were extras in films as late as Wooden Crosses (1931), Raymond Bernard’s study of the French wartime experience.

Initially, films often saw the conflict in terms of protagonists rising above adversity, as in impressively staged Hollywood movies like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926). However, Hollywood was soon portraying the war in terms of devastating loss to community, notably in William Wellman’s flying epic Wings (1927) and John Ford’s saga of an American-German family Four Sons (1928).

By 1930 films were consistently asking tough questions about the purpose of the First World War. Like the former flyer Wellman, James Whale had experienced the war directly, serving as a British officer on the Somme and at Passchendaele until captured by the Germans.

He returned to London to help fellow war veteran R C Sherriff finesse Journey’s End, a play about British soldiers ordered to withstand a desperate German assault on the Somme near the war’s end. The play became a success, Whale and Sherriff turning it into a film in 1930. Although a rather studio-bound example of early sound, the film still has force, particularly when compared to the recent remake with its pointless changes to the original material.

The British historian A. J. P. Taylor described the First World War in terms of “brave helpless soldiers, blundering obstinate generals”; and in Whale’s film this view lies behind the behaviour of Captain Stanhope (Colin Clive – who had replaced Laurence Olivier in the stage version), a man driven to drink by having to carry out orders that ignore the human cost.

Stanhope is seen as trapped in his role as a consequence of public school values of duty and team spirit. Like the play, the film concludes in a dugout with Stanhope witnessing the painful death of a young officer whom he knew from public school. Stanhope’s final desperate act is to head out into the general carnage where presumably he will also die.

The success of Wings in winning the first ever best picture Oscar encouraged Universal in the US to buy the rights to All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1929 best-selling German novel by Erich Maria Remarque based on his and other German combatants’ wartime experiences; Remarque himself had been wounded in the war.

Directed by Lewis Milestone, who had begun working in film in the US Signal Corps during the conflict, the movie appeared in the summer of 1930 a few months after Journey’s End.

Around the same time Georg Wilhelm Pabst, a Czech working in Germany, was shooting Westfront 1918, based on the novel Vier von der Infanterie (Four men from the Infantry) by Ernst Johannsen who had fought at Verdun. Pabst’s attack on the German military would open before Milestone’s film in Germany and after it elsewhere.

Like Journey’s End, All Quiet… and Westfront explore the conflict as a journey to annihilation, yet with more focus on the privations of ordinary soldiers.

Like Gance’s J’accuse!, both films sought to challenge the viewer. Vigorous use is made of early sound technology to capture ferocious explosions and relentless gunfire. In All Quiet’s… most famous shot, the camera tracks lines of falling French soldiers, putting the viewer in the point of view of a German machine gunner.

In the major battle in Westfront Pabst emphasises the anonymity of death in a series of static takes – some lasting minutes – where unknown soldiers are fired upon as they cross the screen in the distance.

Elsewhere he makes powerful use of sparse images, recalling the war etchings of Otto Dix. The face of a character known as the Student and that of the colonial French soldier who will kill him are framed in two shots, and the Student’s death is denoted by the image of a solitary hand protruding from battlefield mud.

Gance reportedly made an anti-German version of J’accuse!; but, as in other films of its time, All Quiet… and Westfront show little real hatred between the opposing sides.

Westfront’s opening tavern scene, where German soldiers enjoy the hospitality of the French girl Yvette, was presumably intended as provocative since German authorities disapproved of anything that might be perceived as encouragement of fraternisation. The scene also reflects something of Pabst’s love of France, which may have been helped, rather than discouraged, by his having been interned in France during the war.

Crucial moments in All Quiet… involve contact between the young German private Paul (touchingly played by Lew Ayres) and French characters. Here national identifications are to some degree transcended. Stranded in a shell crater with a French soldier he has killed in close combat, Paul is forced to confront the tragedy of having been made into a murderer as, looking through the dead man’s papers, he is humbled by the appreciation he gains of him as a human being.

A French girl with whom Paul later spends the night is the only person in the film to show him compassion openly, talking to him about his tragic plight in French – a language ironically he cannot understand.

The title All Quiet on the Western Front refers to officialdom’s dishonesty about the extent of carnage of the war; and the film is particularly memorable in the way in which it develops the novel’s examination of a culture of lies, Milestone inviting both German and non-German audiences to sympathise with how his protagonists are misled and used.

Unlike the novel, the film opens in the classroom of a boys’ school as soldiers leave for war. Here the schoolmaster drives his pupils to enlist by infusing them with nationalist notions about sacrifice for country and heroic comradeship.

The impulsive decision to enlist proves irreversible. When Paul returns home on leave, he has no real opportunity to communicate the reality of his experience of war. He is wary of upsetting his sick mother and feels unable to challenge the pervasive anti-French chauvinism. When he tries to convey the reality of war to the latest group of pupils being indoctrinated by his former schoolmaster, he is simply ignored.

All Quiet… and Westfront were among a number of films around the time – others included Wooden Crosses and Anthony Asquith’s Tell England in 1931 – that ended with the audience witnessing the death of the main character.

No death is possibly sadder or more meaningless than that of Paul near the war’s end in All Quiet…. Paul is especially bereft by the death of Kat, an older soldier who was a kind of father to him; he is left “so alone and so without hope”, as Remarque described him. The last sound in the film is of the shot that kills Paul as he reaches out for a butterfly, and this is followed by a silent flashback of Paul marching with now-dead comrades as if in a fellowship of the dead.

We do not know whether the protagonists of Westfront were enthusiastic volunteers like those of All Quiet…, encountering them in 1918 when, for them, the war had already lost meaning. Away from war, they are driven by a need for human contact, as with the attempt of Karl (Gustav Diesel) to renew his relationship with his wife, or the Student’s trying his chances with Yvette. The sense of disjunction between the personal and political is particularly notable in a scene where soldiers enjoy a variety show directly prior to being led off to battle.

When Karl returns home on leave, Westfront reveals how the economic collapse caused by the war is both promoting chauvinism and making society more mercenary. Ignoring the evident poverty, a war profiteer – looking like a fat capitalist from a Georg Grosz picture – tells Karl about the importance of fighting the French. Then Karl surprises his wife after she has invited the local butcher into their bedroom as part of a desperate attempt to obtain meat.

In the last section in a field hospital, the verbal ramblings of a character called the Lieutenant reach a crescendo as he screams out of the frame in an Expressionist outpouring of the kind of anger and frustration that Stanhope repressed in Journey’s End.

As a counterpoint to the Lieutenant, Pabst provides an intimation of a better, alternative society: as Karl dies in delirium forgiving his wife’s infidelity, the dying French soldier beside him reaches out to him calling him “comrade”.

While Westfront was generally liked by the German public, its anti-heroic view of the war proved too much for the Nazis who sought to destroy all prints on coming to power in 1933. With All Quiet…, Milestone successfully resisted studio demands for his ending to be less downbeat, but he was forced to accept some trimming of the savagery he showed in trench warfare.

For the German release the studio cut the romantic scene between Paul and the French girl, apparently worried about irritating German authorities. This did not stop the Berlin premiere of All Quiet… being interrupted by Goebbels and thugs who let off smoke bombs, released mice and vociferously disrupted the showing of what they dismissed as a “Judenfilm” (Milestone and the producers were of Jewish origin).

The German government demanded cuts to apply in whatever country the film was shown, particularly objecting 
to the classroom scene when Paul tries 
to talk honestly about the war and a 
jokey discussion between soldiers about how the war should be left to leaders to fight.

A scene where a German soldier breaks down during the bombardment of a trench was condemned as insulting to the military. The Nazis would ban the film and burn Remarque’s novel when they came to power.

The UK was one of the few places in the world where All Quiet… was shown largely as Milestone intended. Although it won the Best Picture Oscar, many countries insisted on cuts. Italy and Russia did not even allow it to open. Clearly the Italian fascists did not want to do anything that might remind viewers of the incompetence of their own generals in First World War battles such as Caporetto.

Journey’s End escaped censoring, as generally did Howard Hughes’ aerial war epic Hell’s Angels (1930) on which Whale worked as dialogue director, with Milestone also briefly helping out. If mainly a boys’ own adventure, the latter film showed some honesty about war, notably in a scene where one of the American heroes cracks up. Whale went on to make his seminal horror film Frankenstein (1931), a movie resonant of post-First World War disillusionment in its Expressionist style, lack of conventional heroes and master-creature story.

Indeed Paul’s confrontation with his former teacher in All Quiet… has parallels with Boris Karloff’s creature turning on the scientist master who has given him the brain of a murderer.

Whale eventually encountered serious studio interference in 1937. He had high hopes for his version of Remarque’s The Road Back (1937), which follows the post-war return to Germany of Ernst (a now forgotten John King) and other characters surviving after the action of All Quiet…. Universal imposed a superfluous romance, cutting major scenes – including a visit to an uncle who had kept Ernst’s family afloat through his profiteering during the war. The changes were in part an attempt to avoid irritating the German authorities.

However, Whale and scriptwriter Sherriff managed, even in the truncated result, to give sharpness to the raw material of Remarque’s rambling novel, bringing out the ironies of the abrupt transition brought about in Germany by the Armistice. Certainly the film is less sanitised by Hollywood than Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades (1938) based on a later Remarque novel of post-First World War Germany.

At its best, the film shows the absurdity and randomness of war. In the opening the German soldiers are ordered into battle, despite the Armistice being imminent; and a soldier who is mortally wounded survives to glimpse the world after the Armistice. The other surviving German soldiers go on to meet the American soldiers they have just fought, commenting on what decent guys they are.

Then, in a moving parade sequence, they are joined by the ghosts of their comrades who had the bad luck not to survive. The question of killing in war dominates a trial sequence where one of the returning soldiers defends his killing of a war profiteer for whom his girlfriend had deserted him, pointing out that at least he knew this man, in contrast to the enemy soldiers he was ordered to kill in the war. Many scenes convey forcefully a post-war Germany subject to profiteering, disorder and random outbursts of revolution. In a darkly comic scene, the soldiers find themselves on the edge of a crowd, too far away to hear the well-rehearsed platitudes of the local mayor about how he plans to deal with the current economic chaos.

Later they encounter their former captain, now in charge of a local militia which he orders to open fire on citizens – including wounded veterans – protesting about unemployment and lack of food. Here we see the ruthlessness with which the state can presume to maintain control, even while it is implicated in the social disorder it faces. Indeed Germany would take decades to confront the failures of the Schlieffen Plan through which it had prosecuted the war.

What made Whale finally walk off the film – and may have contributed to him eventually giving up cinema for painting – was the change to his ending. He wanted to return to the horror film with an epilogue where a malign dwarf drills boys in goose-stepping, underlining how even more disastrous consequences of the First World War were to come. Instead another director added a sequence warning about nations rearming themselves, which is still a rather un-Hollywood ending. In any case Whale had likely gone as far as exposing the sad ironies of post-First World War Germany as was permissible at the time.

If too late to make things easier for Whale with The Road Back, everything changed in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland to start the Second World War and the US became openly and increasingly anti-Nazi. In the same year both All Quiet… and The Road Back were reissued with added sequences and narration underlining the need to fight the Nazis. The former now ended with a sequence involving Hitler.

Hollywood would go on at times to sanitise the inevitable tragedies and blunders of war. Undermined by his encounter with the Hollywood blacklist, Milestone ran into difficulties. His Pork Chop Hill (1959) – about a battle unnecessarily wasteful of human life at the end of the Korean War – was cut and given an upbeat narration by star Gregory Peck. Uplifting heavenly music was also added to the silent marching dead ending of All Quiet… when the film was reissued at the time of the Korean War.

Both Germany and France had trouble in accepting the horror of the combat between them; and the scene in All Quiet… where Paul kills the French soldier was cut in Germany until 1952 and in France until 1962. Ever sensitive over the portrayal of its senior military, France banned for decades Paths of Glory (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s great movie about the French army during the First World War.

However, Italy allowed All Quiet… to open uncut in 1956, thereby paving the way for the country belatedly to confront the First World War with films like Mario Monicelli’s satirical comedy The Great War (1958) and Francesco Rosi’s attack on the Caporetto ethos Many Wars Ago (1970).

Restored from prints surviving in the UK and elsewhere outside Germany, Westfront emerged after the Second World War as a reminder of a different Germany – even though Pabst had gone on to make a couple of turgid historical dramas to survive in Nazi Germany.

Pabst would work with Remarque on The Last Act (1955), Germany’s first post-Second World War film about Hitler, whose study of the indifference of senior military to suffering links it to the 1930s films.

All Quiet…, Westfront and The Road Back are clear about the need to see beyond nationalism. Fortunately the first two managed to withstand most of the attempts of governments and studios to change them. Indelible moments like those between Paul and the French soldier he has killed and Karl and the Frenchman dying side by side would feed into the ideals of a post-Second World War Europe.

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