The First World War has become synonomous with mindless slaughter- the great war poets Sassoon, Owen and Isaac Rosenberg made sure of that but so did a great run of plays and films starting with classics like Journey's End and running up to the present day in the recent Audrey Tautou Film, A Very Long Engagement. First amongst those films must be All Quiet on the Western Front. This film functions in its first part to describe a common experience of the first world war, the calling up of a brigade of friends from one school to the front line (in Britain the technique led to the forming of pals' battalions)- through the camaraderie of the young soldiers just arrived at the front we see the horror of the events unfolding around them- screams in the night become much more visceral when they shock a classmate who'd never seen those screams before than when they shock a stranger. Deaths become much more serious when they are the deaths of a friend. Seeing the soldiers leap onto each other as they go into convulsions, watching this anonymous group change from schoolboys exhilerated by populist rhetoric into individuals faced with the trauma of war remains a terrifying spectacle- in that sense this film reverses Sartre's later truism that hell is other people, hell in this war is the mind abandoned to its own resources. Hell as a later machine gunning sequence makes clear is individuality reduced to anonymity in a vast group- hell is the destruction of personal links and ties- the mockery of the pals' brigades exposed for all its sham.
Its the little details which make this film so compelling in its description of the war- the way for instance the guys just out of school can't understand their teaching as useful- afterall it doesn't show you says one that if you bayonet a man in the ribs it sticks whereas in his belly you can remove the bayonet. The way that when the men charge they charge through normal countryside and houses and wicker fences are blown sky high by shells. The way that the men talk about what makes a war, come to a pacifist conclusion but then stop each other deserting. The way that they try to rob even from their wounded comrades to make their own appalling lives better. The shooting of the film can be close, giving the feeling for instance of hiding in a hole by showing the soldiers leaping over the hole through the hole in the ground or showing shells explode like fireworks. One of the most convincing scenes is that I've taken the still from above, where a soldier rebukes another for dieing and not dieing at the same moment, alternating between comforting him and calling upon him to die now and then at the end talking to a corpse and asking its forgiveness.
This is a great pacifist film as other websites have already said- but in part its strength is because it begins as the film develops to focus more and more on one character. As the war continues, the number of characters thin out and gradually we are reduced to one particular soldier, who gives voice towards the end of the film to the pacifist feeling that inspires the whole piece.
I'd direct everyone to the comments as well where Political Umpire leaves a couple of fascinating comments, and both he and Dreadnought leave lists of other good war films.