03 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 1 All Quiet on the Western Front

(The entire film is on YouTube)

All Quiet on the Western Front is a savage howl of a script, a bitter indictment of war and the culture that lets loose the mechanized violence. The screenplay is brilliantly constructed with characters that live, breathe, change and ultimately die senselessly, horribly, and absurdly for causes that in the immediacy of the front line are mere deadly abstractions. It's a completely radical work that calls into question the values that led to the war and the authorities in church, state and town that supported the war at the cost of millions of lives.

On the surface, All Quiet relates a simple story, and one that we've become familiar with through the hundreds of war movies that came later. Paul and his classmates volunteer in the early days of the war, urged on by a jingoistic schoolteacher. He and his schoolboy friends have some of their naivete kicked out of them during basic training. The town postmaster, Himmelstoss, turns into a petty dictator who sadistically drills them through exercises we know will be useless to soldiers in trench warfare. These scenes reminded me of the brutal training in Full Metal Jacket, or even in The Young Lions. But notably, in this script the cruelty comes entirely from the NCO.

The last phase of their initiation comes at the Front when they experience their first bombardment. There's a spectacularly Goth sequence as the bombs blast up corpses in the graveyard where they're sheltering. The rain of shells washes away any illusions the kids may have kept. From then on, the aim is survival. Kat, an older, more experience hand, takes them under his wing. We see battles -- with the French, with rats, with lice.

During his visit home, we see the scope of his psychological damage. As a student, we remember, Paul wrote verse plays. Now he can barely relate to his sister, his mother and his father. He hits the deck when he hears the screech of a streetcar, so much like shrapnel. He's completely destroyed inside, unfit for life even with a loving family to help him. Effectively, he's dead.

Finally, the only value that counts is the brotherhood among the soldiers. Even this is viewed without a trace of sentimentality: we see shirkers, petty thieves, a man trying to switch his broken helmet with another. Yet, the good ones help each other.

Each scene carries a charge which feeds inevitably into the following action. Each scene also has a point. Skillfully uses objects to visually move the story along: a pair of boots that gets passed along from character to character.

Notably, there's zero exposition. It's all showing, no telling. We get some information from Kat, for sure, but we learn it along with Paul, who's the audience's stand in. But the writers waste no time in moving us through the experiences that make up the movie.

Some of the elements have turned into cliches. The crusty old mentor, for example, or the martinet officer, or the kid who cracks up right away. But what struck me was how much more free the writers were in dealing with war. Perhaps it was because they were telling the story of the enemy army -- the defeated enemy. Or maybe we had a more developed culture back then, one that could see the humanity of our enemies and the absurdity of putting state directives over individual freedom.

We live in a country that's become as thoroughly militarized as Germany in 1914, with all the soldier worship that entails, and with all the lies to support it. I wonder if a similar movie could be made now. Eastwood pulled one off from the  Japanese perspective; it's on my list, now.

I had a hard time putting down the script itself. It reads well; the prose is lean and descriptive. They really knew their craft as well, with each scene building the action -- just like they tell you, it progresses very much along a dialectic progression: tension, conflict, resolution leading to a new tension carried on from the previous scene.

All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Adapted by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbot, and Del Andrews.

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