A group of German college students at the outset of WWI are riled up by an over-patriotic college professor and convinced to join the war effort. Soon they discover that all the dreams they had of being heroes was a lie, and war is just a brutal massacre started by people who have no idea what it’s really like.
Historically, this movie is the first talkie to become really popular as a war film. It was set up to make the horrors of war as realistic as possible and show that in war, there really aren’t heroes. They might sound like heroes later, but as Paul says to a group of students in the film, “There are no heroes in war, you’re either alive or your dead.” And this movie does it’s best to show you the truth of just how terrible war can be. It also sets a precedent of all war films made after this. If this didn’t exist, neither would Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, The Thin Red Line, Full Metal Jacket, or who knows how many others. This was the trendsetter for all films that came out since its release.
Let’s see, in the late 20s and early 30s it was an interesting time for movies. Talkies had just been implemented but it was also right in the midsts of the Great Depression so though the technology for talkies was flourishing in Hollywood, many of the theaters in other parts of the world were very slow to implement the new use of sound. Because of this, many films were shot as both talkie and silent side by side, including this film. But also because of this, you might get a few scenes that have dialogue of things like “I’ve been shot in the side,” and he yells that he’s been shot in the side for several minutes. In the silent version it’s probably just an intertitle of him saying it once. Thankfully, scenes like these that over-explain only happen a few times but it’s enough to be noteworthy.
Outside of that, the special effects are quite amazing, especially for the time period. It really does a good job of making you feel like you’re there in the trenches with this group of German soldiers. And you know there’s no CGI in this film, there weren’t even computers then.
Oh, and despite being German, they’re all played by Americans and speak English without accents, it’s 1930s Hollywood afterall, you should be thankful no one’s in blackface…
One final complaint, and that’s overacting from our main character Paul (Lew Ayres), it only happens during a few scenes in the middle of the film, and then in the last 45 minutes, his acting suddenly gets a lot better when he starts arguing the ethics of war and what it means to be a soldier, but up until that point, he felt like he’s never acted in a non-silent film before. This might be the case, I’m not sure.
Why you should watch it before you die: This is both the start of the historical war movie as a talkie and a very accurate depiction of WWI from the point of view of of the soldiers. Recommended to the historical film buffs among us.
+10: An amazing achievement of a film
-1: Ayres’ overacting
-1: Some scenes felt a bit lost in transition from silent to talkie versions
+1: Amazing special effects