ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
SUBJECTS — Literature/Adaptation; World/Germany & WWI;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage in War;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness (Patriotism); Respect; Citizenship; Caring.
AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating;
Drama; 1930; 103 minutes; Black and White. Available from Amazon.com.
This is an acclaimed film about the First World War told from the German perspective. The movie is based on the classic novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The 1930 black and white version of the story is better than the 1979 remake.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1930 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Milestone); 1930 National Board of Review Awards: Ten Best Films of the Year; 1930 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Writing. This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. This film is ranked #54 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006).
Lew Ayres, Ben Alexander, Louis Wolhemin, John Ray, Slim Summerville and Russell Gleason.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
All Quiet on the Western Front shows the effects of the war on the individual soldier, whether friend or foe. It illustrates the horrors of war with specific reference to trench warfare during the First World War. It also shows the drawbacks of unquestioning patriotism. The effect is powerful in promoting an anti-war sentiment.
Students in either history or literature classes who are reading the book will benefit from the film’s interpretation of the novel and will be able to write comparisons of the themes and characterizations presented. Students who are not reading the novel will gain insight into World War I through the vivid imagery of trench warfare as well as through research and writing assignments at the film’s end.
Suggest that interested students read the book! The movie is based on the classic World War I novel of the same name by Erick Maria Remaque. No movie can include all of the incidents, descriptions, and character development contained in a good novel. Recommend that students interested in the movie read the book, too. For an extra credit project, students can compare the two versions of the story.
The First World War was primarily between two European alliances. The “Central Powers” consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The “Allies” were Britain, France and Russia. Various smaller states and areas outside of Europe were also involved. Turkey came into the war an ally of the “Central Powers” and lost most of her empire as a result. British, French and South African troops conquered German possessions in Africa. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks sued for a separate peace.
The Western Front ran across the face of Western Europe from Belgium to Switzerland for some 300 miles. The front consisted of opposing trenches, sometimes only yards apart. The trench warfare of World War I lasted for three years and took several million lives. The Battle of the Somme, an attack by the Allies trying to break through the German lines, took more than four months. The Allies gained only six miles. British and French casualties were 95,675 Britons killed and 60,729 Frenchmen killed. The defense cost the German army 164,055 soldiers killed.
Overall German casualties during the War (wounded and killed) were 7,142,558, some 65% of all German soldiers who were mobilized. French casualties were 6,160,800, an astounding 73% of all men mobilized. British Empire casualties were 3,190,235, “only” 36% of men mobilized. U.S. casualties were 350,300, a “minimal” 8% of mobilized personnel. Counting all combatants over the entire War, 65 million men were mobilized, 8.5 million killed, 21.2 million wounded, and 7.7 million taken prisoner or missing in action.
Modern historians believe that much of the death toll was caused by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – 1920. Concentraing large numbers of men in close proximity in situations in which they were not getting normal food or sleep and in which they were terribly stressed, resulted in high rates of mortality from flu among the soldiers.
The trenches were muddy ditches often flooded with water. The bodies of dead and wounded men and animals fouled them. Corpses lay in the no man’s land between the trenches. Enemy snipers, rats, lice, and stench from the decaying bodies contributed to the misery of the trenches. Toward the end of the war the German soldiers had little food.
An attack was preceded by bombardments, some lasting for days. In order to mount an attack, soldiers carrying rifles and packs had to go “over the top.” Once in the no man’s land they faced barbed wire entanglements, machine guns, bombardment (often by their own misdirected guns), grenades, poison gas and fire from the opposing trenches.
The Western Front was in stalemate until the U.S. entered the war. Fresh troops and abundant hardware and supplies from the U.S. tipped the scales decisively in favor of the Allies. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany in June 1919.
For a summary description of the causes of World War I, see Learning Guide to Paths of Glory.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. When the German schoolmaster was trying to motivate his students to enlist in the army, did he say anything that would be different from what would be said by a recruiter for the Allied Armies talking to young men in France, Britain, or theU.S.? Does what he said tell you anything about patriotism?
The answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second question is that blind and unthinking patriotism can do a lot of harm. While a person should be willing to sacrifice for the good of his country, just because the call of patriotism goes out, doesn’t mean it should be answered. People should think critically about what they are going to do from the moral and historical standpoint.
2. A powerful motif in the book and film is the pair of leather boots owned by Paul’s friend Hans. Paul brought them back from the hospital after Hans died. What was the author of this story trying to tell us by focusing on these boots?
Answers will vary: Boots can be seen as an elemental aspect of a “foot soldier” and as such serve to represent the man that wore them and to reduce him to a small aspect of himself. Another possible response is that the soldiers were expendable and that when they died, others would come to take their place and wear their boots.
3. What is the significance of the way in which Paul died?
Answers will vary: Students should be able to see that war is antithetical to compassion, beauty, the natural world and many other things that we appreciate in life. Paul’s death symbolically illuminates this point.
4. The film does not romanticize warfare and shows many of the miseries of World War I. Actually, conditions for the soldiers in the trenches were worse than what is shown in the movie. Having seen the film, would you still go to war if you felt that your country was threatened? Describe your reasons.
Answers will vary. Although the film came out prior to World War II, it could be that each generation approaches warfare as if its experience will be different, glorious and survivable.
Click for more nine additional discussion questions.
5. During the battle scenes, did you want the Allied soldiers to win or did you want Paul and his German friends to win? What does this tell you about the mental process by which a person reads a book or sees a movie?
There is no one correct response, but any strong response will take account of the pull on our feelings of the German soldiers. People identify with the main characters in stories told in books, movies, and on the stage. This makes stories excellent means for spreading propaganda.
6. Most people believe that it’s a good thing to be patriotic. The young men shown in this movie were motivated by patriotic feelings to enlist in the German Army. What does this story tell us about patriotism?
Patriotism can be misused. After their experience at the front the young men are disillusioned and interested mostly in survival.
7. When Paul returned home on leave, why did the schoolboys think him a coward?
A strong response will refer to the ignorance of the boys about conditions at the front and to the empty patriotic slogans mouthed by their teacher.
8. Were Paul and his friends courageous? Was any one of them a coward?
Any soldier who puts his or her life at risk is courageous.
9. Compare the courage [patriotism] of a soldier who risks his life with the approval and upon the demand of his society and the courage of a man like Ben du Toit in A Dry White Season who risks his life by turning against his community when he recognizes that it is committing evil, in this case Apartheid, who is virtually alone in his quest for justice, who is perceived by his community and his government as being a traitor, and who risks torture or death for his actions. Who has the greater courage?
There is no one correct response. Each type of courage is different. There is probably more likelihood of getting injured in a war situation, but soldiers are generally supported by the population and the other soldiers in the unit, whereas a reformer for social change is often alone and isolated. In many situations, social reformers are under great threat, even in stable democracies such as the United States. Look at what happened to Dr. M.L. King, civil rights worker Medgar Evers (see Ghosts of Mississippi) and the women who picketed the White House seeking the vote (see Iron Jawed Angels).
10. When Paul went home on leave, how do you think he felt about the way his friends and family thought about the war?
Any reasoned and supported response is correct. Paul was conflicted. He knew that they had no idea how terrible it was at the front and that their feelings of patriotism were uninformed and untested by the real horrors of war.
11. How can war be reconciled with the moral imperative to respect others and to deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements?
War results in contradictions. People are told that they should do things, such as kill or maim others, that are prohibited in other situations.
12. What does Paul’s sympathy and concern for the dying enemy soldier demonstrate?
That the war had not completely dulled his ability to care.
13. When should the value of caring for another human being prevail over the dictates of war?
Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest moral leader of the 20th century, would tell us that principles of non-violence should prevail all the time. See Learning Guide to Gandhi. But most people admit that they cannot live up to Gandhi’s standards. However, it is interesting to note that the standards of war have changed. In World War II, just over 50 years ago, all sides killed civilian populations indiscriminately.. The Germans and Japanese started it and the Allies paid them back many times over causing civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands bombing Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and many other population centers. This conduct would not be tolerated in today’s world in which a drone attack that kills ten or twenty civilians will result in an apology.
14. Could you think of a better way for Paul to have helped his country other than to go to war?
There is no one correct response to this question.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
See questions dealing with patriotism: 1 and 4 in the Learning Guide and questions 5, 6 & 10 above.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
Please refer to question number 11 above.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
Please refer to questions numbered 12 and 13 above.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
Please refer to question number 14 above.
BRIDGES TO READING
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is an excellent book for good readers in junior high or middle school. Suitable nonfiction books concerning WWI include: A Prose Anthology of the First World War edited by Robert Hull Selector and World War I: “The War to End Wars” by Zachary Kent.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41,& 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.