The new soldiers endure boot camp under detested drill inspector Himmelstoss (John Wray). Then its off to the front, and its ever-present threats of death, from a bullet, a shell, or starvation.
Some of Paul's former classmates, such as Behn (Walter Rogers), die quickly. Others, such as hapless Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), suffer for days before dying. Paul befriends the older and more experienced Kat (Louis Wolheim), a bearish and cynical man but an effective soldier. Comic relief, at least to a degree, is provided by lanky and sad-faced Slim Summerville.
It's not all bad for Paul. He enjoys a feast, has a one-night stand with Yola d'Avril, and even returns home on a brief leave. But as the body count rises, we wonder how much longer Paul's luck will hold out.
How others will see it. Despite its costly production, All Quiet on the Western Front was a solid success; one of the top grossing films of 1930. Its box office was fanned by critical praise. The film took home the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and was nominated for its screenplay and cinematography.
Today at imdb.com, the movie has 52K user votes, a huge total for a movie from the dawn of talkies. The user rating of 8.2 out of 10 is extremely high, though women grade it somewhat lower at 7.6, because of its ceaselessly bleak depiction of life at the front.
How I felt about it. Other great movies have been made about World War I. There's Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli (1981), Shoulder Arms (1918), and probably others that I have not seen. But it's a great bet that best among them all is All Quiet on the Western Front and its definitive trench battle scenes.
It turns out that the German professor has it wrong. There is nothing glorious about war. It is only a waste of lives. The old men at home with the maps are wrong, too. They can't see the machine guns, barbed wire, and tanks. We knew this all along, of course, but Lewis Milestone hammers home the point again and again.
It is unusual, then and now, for an American A-list movie to depict the war from a German perspective. The Hollywood formula is personified by Sergeant York (1941), a fable in which the laconic hero singlehandedly captures a German platoon. Later movies capture the grim, useless nature of the war, though generally from the Allied perspective, and never from the Russian point of view.
But life in a trench is the same, whether you are German, British, Canadian, American, or Australian. Hours of idle talk and playing cards, while shells rattle the barracks and cold rain seeps in. But then come orders to leave the relative safety of one trench to attack another. Or you must man a machine gun to hold off an advancing company, and if that fails, battle the enemy in the trench with bayonets.
Men who strut proudly, like Himmelstoss, can prove cowardly in battle. But there are no heroes, only victims and survivors. Taking a trench at great cost provides only a football field's worth of territory.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not the greatest film about war. That honor belongs to The Thin Red Line (1998). But it may be the most effective antiwar movie ever made.