A classic film of conscience
Screening of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ evokes memories
“If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived ‘enemies.’”
— Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, “A New Earth”
Pothole Pictures has courageously chosen to resurrect Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war classic, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Courageously, because, at 18 years shy of a century, the film harkens back to an era when cinema still harbored vestiges of acting styles born of the theater — a certain histrionic extremity at times, a proclivity to caricature — not unlike your garden-variety Shakespearean characterizations.
Yet, not so its protagonist, Paul Baumer — a deeply uncertain German soldier sensitively enacted by a young, prescient Lew Ayres in the role that launched his career.
Nor was Ayres’ prescience serendipitous; the actor was himself a committed pacifist throughout his long life. In fact, he was an icon of decency at every turn. He even lost the starring role in the TV series “Dr. Kildare” — a role he put on the map in a series of films in the 1940s — because he had stipulated he would accept only if there was no cigarette advertising.
The film documents, then, the nightmare of “static trench warfare in France and Belgium, (in which) millions of men perished to gain a few miles of mud ... (leaving) 10 million human beings killed and many more maimed and disfigured.” (Eckhart Tolle)
And, alas, with the dead and maimed still coming home, it remains as contemporary as ever it has been to this day. Indeed, ancient as it may be, it re-awakened the vision of a very personal crucible:
It was 1967 and my second year at college; it was also the apogee of the Vietnam War. I received an ominously official notice to report, in 10 days, to a regional processing center to undergo all-day physical and mental testing and examination, along with several thousand other young American men, as part of a pre-induction screening to vet our fitness for service in the U.S. Military.
There was no prerogative to opt out.
Butch-cut staff sergeants brusquely barked and bullied the long lines of bewildered, hesitantly compliant youths into silence, stripping en masse, waiting naked and probed by respective medical examiners. Few have had time or perspective to consider the ethicality of this, in retrospect, quietly brutal assault on their autonomy and their right to refusal, their option — as Melville’s Bartleby intoned — to say “I prefer not to.”
Yet, here and there, amidst one’s grave and growing pangs of misgiving, one encountered a pathetic, if misguided attempt to forestall the offense to one’s freedoms: a young man with glazed eyes, wandering almost mindlessly through the lines, the obvious victim of a self-administered drug high, hoping, most likely, to make a compelling case for his mental unfitness before the clinical scrutiny of the staff psychiatrists. Another resolves to badly mangle his written test answers.
It is a day full of unchallenged inhumanities, with hardly a true human in sight, underscored by the unspoken malaise of a warehouse full of souls who have — almost as one being — yielded to tacitly accepting the authority their government has so impressively sought to impose upon them.
As I took in the surreal, zombie-like normalcy of the medical military machinery, devouring whole an unresisting legion of young men, I felt an irreversible resolve to act.
I remember a book I’d devoured by World War II pacifist Jim Peck, titled “We Who Would Not Kill.” Peck was imprisoned for his beliefs, as, later, were many Vietnam War dissidents who chose not to flee the United States for Canada and Europe.
I chose, also, not to leave the country where dwelled those nearest and dearest to me, and where I hoped spend my future life, and applied for the status of a conscientious objector, eventually undergoing a tribunal at the local draft board for which I had prepared a heroic written testament.
Yet, all this was in vain; it went unread and my well-chosen witness was waved aside. I was asked to defend my stance without intermediaries. The neighboring draft board, having finished its final case of the day, overheard the hearing and decided they would join the five-man crew that oversaw my case. Thus, I found myself confronting 10 sober, highly dubious, visibly uncomfortable men as I spoke.
While at first I spoke to them as a group, I quickly became aware that it was their very group mentality that was insulating each of them from taking personal responsibility for possibly sending a young, non-criminal individual to several years of mandatory imprisonment — a grave responsibility to say the least.
In this quiet crucible of conscience, a sudden inspiration seized me — to this day I often refer to it as a kind of visitation by the “Holy Spirit,” which seem to whisper, “These men seem to be awake but they are actually asleep; they’re numb, and their default setting is to pass the buck and generically deny requests such as yours, pretending they personally did nothing. Speak to each person individually and you will connect with his conscience.”
And that’s just what I did; I gazed into the eyes of each man in turn and told each that I loved this country, that it was the place of my origin, my home and my family, and that, for these, I would be willing to go to prison.
The many eyes widened, the faces blanched: “You would?”
“Yes,” I said, “I would.”
They looked at each other wordlessly, then ended our confrontation, saying I would receive notice of their decision in the mail.
Four anxious weeks later, I opened the second ominous notice from the draft board to discover a pristine ID card identifying its bearer as a 1-O — a valid conscientious objector.
Admission to “All Quiet on the Western Front” is $6 for adults and $4 for kids under 12.
Advance tickets for future Pothole Picture films can be purchased at the rate of 5 for $20 by sending a check to:
P.O. Box 368, Shelburne Falls
For more information: 413-625-2896.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at