All Quiet On The Western Front: Why the 1930 classic is one of the best war movies of all time

With a new telling of this classic story on the horizon, why is the original picture considered a classic among war films?

Promotional poster for the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.

Promotional poster for the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.

Jacob Goldman, Contributing Writer

This article is a review of the classic film All Quiet On The Western Front from 1930. You may be looking for a review of the new remake of the film released by Netflix. The Scarlet’s review of that film can be found here.

This article contains Spoilers for a movie that is almost a century old. You have been warned.

All Quiet On The Western Front, directed by Lewis Milestone, is a product of its time in some incredibly surprising and heartfelt ways. The biggest issues that causes are that many aspects of the sound in the older film are not done as masterfully as in many newer films. These include (1) sound effects, which are absent when they really should not be (like when a battle-hardened soldier punches a shell-shocked one), (2) actors who clearly do not know how to act in these new sound films, and (3) the apparent need to include as many monologues that spell out the themes of the movie as possible. 

That being said, All Quiet succeeds exactly because of its themes, and ironically, its use of creatively-flawed sound. Throughout the film, one can easily become used to the shrill shrieks of mortar shells, and the cacophony ever-present amid battle. It is only when the dust and music clear out that we see the true horrors of war, amidst the silence of No Man’s Land.

Though the story is a relatively simple one, I found it to be heartfelt. The story begins as a squad of German soldiers, who are fresh out of school, have been lulled into action by a particularly excitable teacher. The immediate confusion is shown as the boys are thrown into a conflict they have no understanding of, facing death and war instead of the medals and honor they had initially anticipated. One-by-one, the boys get killed and the fear, anger, and lust they feel form them into men. They force their superior into battle, where he is promptly killed. The main character, Paul, stabs a man and spends several hours with the dying soldier, who is equally heartbroken and alone. Hospital rooms are visually displayed, where wounded soldiers never last long, and those who do, see depression an easy way out. The film is quite disparaging in its criticism of the war.

Eventually, Paul is one of the only members of his class left. Returning home, he finds nothing but his ailing mother, his old teacher, and some local military leaders – the latter two have no idea of the realities of war. When Paul delivers his anti-war monologue in the teacher’s classroom to yet another field of impressionable children, the audience immediately dismisses him as a coward. Distraught, Paul returns to the front lines. He first meets up with his old mentor Kat, who immediately dies from mortar shells that have dropped from an airplane. Paul lugs his body back to camp, unaware of his friend’s death, and seems to refuse it even after he learns of the news. The next day, he returns to fighting. During one moment of calm, Paul notices a butterfly sitting still amidst the rubble. Reaching out of his trench to touch the insect, Paul goes the way of his friends in a moment of ecstasy. The movie ends with a reflection of the needless lives lost in the pursuit of some nameless means of honor.

For me, the biggest impact of All Quiet, that no remake could ever hope to fix, is the reality of the people involved with making the film. All Quiet was released in 1930, only twelve years after the First World War ended (and nine years before another one was due to begin). In the film, a surprisingly modern approach to making an anti-war film was taken. The film was made before the propaganda-filled media that was seen during the Second World War, as well as before the Hays Code made almost all indications of violence and sex illegal in major films. This allowed the beautifully shot action scenes to come away with even more brutality than many films made in the following decades would have been allowed. Additionally, the war’s recency at the time of filming meant that every single person involved in the production had lived during, had memories of, and possibly even fought in the war. This allowed the production to become possibly one of the most realistic war movies ever made, not just in thematic heft but through incredible effects, production design, and costumes. As such, we get one of the most deeply impactful and visceral war films ever made.


Will Clarkies like it?

If you are a history or film buff? Yes

If you love black and white movies or war movies? Yes

If you fall asleep as soon as you see a black-and-white image? No


Final Cougar Count: 4.5/5