March 09, 2007
With American soldiers in harm’s way, and dead-ender neocons baying for more American and Iraqi blood to be spilled, one wonders if these sofa samurai have ever read a book about the Middle East, or, as I wrote recently in these here pages, ever seen a movie about the horrors of war. I covered seven conflicts in my youth as a correspondent, the last one being the Yom Kippur War of 1973. One thing I learned is that newsreels do not convey the true horror of war. As the man said “War is hell,” but try and tell this to types like Bill Kristol or Robert Kagan, two physical cowards who have the president’s ear (and then some).
The most powerful anti-war book ever was written by a German, Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), in 1929. It became an instant hit and a classic, one that inspired the first mass international peace movement. One year later. Hollywood made a film of it, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Such was the influence of the movie on its hero Paul Baumer, played by Lew Ayres, that the talented young actor became a conscientious objector during World War II. And got a hell of a lot of flak for it, too.
Remarque was a hell of a man. Good looking, a terrific womanizer and a heavy drinker, he bedded most Hollywood stars he came into contact with, and he came into contact with many of them. He was Marlene Dietrich’s favorite beau, was married to Paulette Goddard, and had affairs with Greta Garbo (yes, she made an exception in his case) Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez and Louise Rainer, to name but a few. He had served with gallantry on the western front in the Great War as a German officer, and managed to survive Paschendaele, the goriest battle of the war. After his book became a best seller he hung out with people like Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Leni Reifenstahl, and of course Marlene Dietrich. (He called his sleek Lancia “Puma one,” la Dietrich “Puma Two”). After tasting Berlin’s naughty period of cabaret life in the 20’s, Remarque left for Switzerland when the Nazis took over. (His sister was beheaded for anti-Nazi activities in 1943).
Both the book and the movie contain some extremely haunting scenes. In one of the most famous, Paul Baumer kills a French poilu who jumps into his foxhole in no man’s land while trying to take cover. Baumer stabs him in the throat and then he watches the French soldier die while gurgling blood. The German tries to comfort him but to no avail. He apologizes as his enemy dies. He then goes through his pockets and finds pictures of the dead man’s loved ones. His enemy is just like him, a man doing his duty with a family who love him back home. Ayres played that scene as perfectly as it is possible. No mawkishness and no cliches. And it was more than 75 years ago when the film was made. The ending of the movie and of the book is a real bummer. Our young hero—always in a trench, most of his schoolboy friends with whom he had gone optimistically to war now dead—sees a butterfly, the only sign of beauty in the hellish mud and cratered moonscape, and momentarily lets his guard down while he watched the butterfly (schmetterling, in German) sit on his arm. A sniper shot kills him. End of story. It is just about the time when all became quiet on the western front.
Mind you, that was the last gentlemen’s war. Opposing troops did mingle during Christmas, and not only exchanged gifts but also played a historic soccer match. I thought Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which dealt with that war, showed the inhumanity of the general staff—definitely worse on the Entente side than on the German in real life—but except for the famous battle scene, it was mostly propaganda against upper class officers. I suppose the greatest film ever made—it has been voted that many times, especially in Europe—is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, made in the early Thirties, a war film without a single battle.
La Grande Illusion does not tend to do what American film makers cannot resist doing when making a war movie: use nerve-shattering effects with pretentious verbiage and action which aim to give the stomach-churning scenes a metaphysical dimension. (The Marine attack in the last scene of Full Metal Jacket is a perfect example). In La Grande Illusion a French officer is shot while trying to escape from the top security fortress where he is imprisoned. The German commander, played by Erich von Stroheim with enormous and understated pathos, is close to tears for having shot a brother officer, not withstanding that he’s the enemy. He apologizes to the dying man who has sacrificed himself to divert attention from two French soldiers escaping down the mountainside. It is a heart-rending scene, especially as the upper class commander feels great friendship for his fellow upper class prisoner, to whom he has already confessed that the war will mean the end of their class.
Both von Rauffenstein (Stroheim) and Boeldieu (Fresnay), know it’s the end of the line. The Frenchman welcomes death. The German, a flying ace who has had to take up “this useless life” as commander because he is now mostly made up of metal, envies him. They are fighting on opposite sides whereas they should be fighting together against the great unwashed and the politicians. Hear, hear! Think of the brave soldiers in Iraq. And then of the neocons, posing as warriors in their comfy DC leather armchairs—and puke.
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