Thursday, November 7, 2019

Veterans' Month Week 2: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
World War I, "The Great War," was supposed to be the war to end all wars. If the war didn't manage the job, this film was supposed to end all wars. On DVD version of All Quiet on the Western Front that I watched, there was a trailer for the film’s re-release a couple of years after it came out in 1930. The narrator on the trailer said the film should be released every year (to theaters, he meant. No DVDs back then) throughout the world. Sadly, this plan failed. There was no sequel to the film, but there was to the war.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 best selling novel (2.5 million copies sold in 21 languages in addition to the original German), the film won the third Oscar for Best Picture, and it also earned an Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone.

This film (and the novel it was based upon) was intended to bring out a great moral message with the hope of changing humanity's actions. I would think there might be a religious component to such a message, but the church itself has a minor role in the film -- and not a very influential one at that.

The story of the film begins in a classroom of boys in Germany at the start of the Great War. Their teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lacey), is telling the boys they should serve the Fatherland and sign up to fight. “You are the life of the Fatherland… The gay heroes… I know in one school the boys have enlisted en masse... How sweet it is to die for the Fatherland. The Fatherland needs leaders; personal ambition must be thrown aside.” All the boys are stirred by this message, particularly the boy others look to as their leader, Paul (Lew Ayres).

The film follows the boys as they fight on the front of one of the most ghastly of all wars, living in the trenches, suffering injuries, and dying off one by one. All the dreams of glory inspired by the boys' teachers, civic leaders, posters, and government propaganda prove to be lies. (It is interesting to contemplate that Hollywood was willing to make this film from the German perspective and whether the film could have been made about American soldiers with those lies coming from the Wilson administration rather than the German Kaiser.)

Eventually, all of this band of friends suffer horrendous fates. The opening of the film gives this message, “A generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” To be honest, we don’t see many men in the film who escape the shells.

For the purposes of this blog, where does the church appear? I find it interesting that we never see a Lutheran Church or pastor in the scenes in Germany. We never learn the stance that church took about the war, though it's reasonable to think the church was supportive -- the question must have at least come up. 

Instead, we see a Roman Catholic field hospital. Paul, after being injured in the field, finds himself there (the 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie is more explicit about the benefits. Paul, played by Richard Thomas, says “This is a piece of luck because Catholic infirmaries are noted for their good treatment and good food.”)

Nuns are serving alongside Red Cross workers caring for the men in need, but a rather disturbing thing happens at the hospital. (Actually, I’m sure that a great number of disturbing things happen at the hospital, but we are going to look at one of them.)

One of the nuns helps nurses take a patient off to another room. She says she is taking him off to the “bandaging room.” Another patient objects that she is taking his tunic, which indicates they have no intention of bringing the man back. He claims the man is being taken to the “dying room,” which is next to the morgue.

The nuns seem to be part of ongoing patient deception, never acknowledging that the patients' comrades are dying. Perhaps they had good motives, trying to instill optimism in the wounded men. But such plans seemed to fail, and deception is deception. The nuns could give real hope if they would talk about Jesus (there is a crucifix on the wall) and the hope of a life to come after death. The nuns in this film never talk about God.

On the other hand, Paul does talk to God a couple of times in this film. He prays that a hospitalized friend will live. His friend dies. Paul is forced to kill a Frenchman with a knife in a trench. He asks God why men of one nation are pitted against one another. No answer seems to come.
So while we acknowledge the good medical work the Catholic infirmaries provide in the film, their neglect of spiritual duties brings them a Movie Church Rating of only two out of four steeples.

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