Not All Quiet on the Western Front

How historically accurate is the BAFTA Award winning and Oscar nominated All Quiet on the Western Front? We asked First World War historian, Dr Jonathan Boff.

Soldier on First World War battlefield

Felix Kammerer in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The new version of All Quiet on the Western Front is set in early November 1918, at the culmination of a little-known but giant set of Allied offensives on the Western Front, a campaign often known as the Hundred Days campaign. This was a multi-million man coordinated operation which launched a series of huge hammer blows up and down the length of the Western Front. These broke the trench stalemate, drove the Germans back, and liberated most of occupied France and much of Belgium.

The film gets some of the detail of what happened right: the youth of the soldiers by this stage of the war and their hunger as supply chains broke down; the beginnings of a breakdown of discipline in the German army and mass desertion as soldiers gave up and went home; the sheer scale of the violence and the horrendous rate of casualties; the use of tanks and aeroplanes. And there were some last minute attacks of the kind made by the mad German general in the movie, although generally they were ordered by American, rather than German, commanders. 

But the way the film represents the war as series of blind bayonet charges against machine guns, backwards and forwards across No Man's Land, may reflect the war as it had been fought in 1915, but not as it was in 1918. By then, everyone had learnt how lethal the battlefield could be and developed tactics to avoid pitting flesh against steel in that way.

Where the film really betrays the book, though, to my mind, is that the physical horror and special effects overwhelm the point Remarque was trying to make about the psychological effect of the war on soldiers, the alienation from civilian life it caused, and the extent to which Paul's physical death is less important than his loss of the will to live after Kat dies. It doesn't matter whether Paul survives or not, because he is in a sense already dead. That's the point Remarque tried to make: it's a point about the effects of the war on 1920s society which goes far beyond the Mud, Blood and Endless Poetry clichés. But the film can't get there because it's got caught up on its own whizzes and bangs, and consequently it can say nothing new.

Two men firing a machine gun

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

It is, ultimately, a film which makes a fascinating and complex subject cartoonish and – unforgivably – boring.