Adapted by Maxwell Anderson with screenplay by George Abbott, this black and white movie is decidedly anti-war as it follows Paul (Lew Ayres), a young man who is persuaded to join the army by a schoolmaster (Arnold Lucy) only to return home on leave, disillusioned. He hears his old schoolmaster encouraging the young boys to go and fight for the glory of their country. Although he's encouraged to tell the boys the truth, he is reluctant, but finally relents, saying:
I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew.The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all.
The young boys boo him and don't listen to his words and yet he continues,"...it’s easier to say go out and die than it is to do it. And it’s easier to say it than than to watch it happen."
He hears older men telling him to push on to Paris. Instead of enjoying his leave, he can't wait to go back to his old friends who truly understand the nature of war. When he returns from leave early, he finds all his former comrades gone except the resourceful Kat Katczinksy (Louis Wolheim). The rest of the company are young recruits who have yet to understand what war really is. Paul confides to Kat:
The young men thought I was a coward because I told them we learned that death is stronger than duty to one’s country. The old men said, "Go on. Push on to Paris." It’s not home back there anymore....At least we know what it’s all about out here. There are no lies here.
Kat is injured and dies while Paul is carrying him back. Paul essentially becomes an old man of the company.
Under the direction of Lewis Milestone, this film is neither sentimental nor overly gory. The focus is on the men and their emotions, how watching a man die slowly strips him of the mask of enemy and makes him into just another man and how there is a madness in war and that can infect the men who survive. There are moments when the movie touches on shell shock: a man panics and runs wildly toward the enemy after he's been blinded or when on a quiet day, when Paul reaches out to touch a butterfly and is killed by a sniper.
In the end, Milestone shows us many men marching to war and rows of white crosses, just as other directors would later do to indicate the scope of sacrifice.
Yet by 1930, Adolf Hitler had already published "Mein Kamph" (My Struggle) in 1925 and 1926. The Great Depression had begun that year. In three more years, Hitler would be appointed chancellor.
With that in mind, there's an additional layer of poignancy in this film. Although the technology dates it, this movie still holds up well and, unfortunately, holds just as much meaning as it did in 1929, 11 years after World War I ended and just a decade before Europe would again be engulfed in war.