This famous anti-war novel captured the
essence of life on the Western Front from a pro-German perspective – the endless boredom of waiting in the trenches
for something to happen, the sporadic bursts of fighting, and the unendurable pain and suffering experienced by those unfortunate
enough to be caught in the line of fire in an endless war of attrition.
Sensibly director David Hunter did not
ask his cast to assume pseudo-German accents (which might have made the novel seem like another version of ‘Allo Allo). Rather he had them speak English dialects – Yorkshire, Glaswegian Scots, Devonian – to emphasize the fact that the troops were
just ordinary people caught up in a futile conflict. Hunter made effective use of sound: the screams of horses caught up in
a gas-attack resonated throughout the action, making us realize that it is dumb animals who can suffer the most during armed
conflict. Those who influenced the course of the war did so from the comfort of their headquarters. The German soldiers believed
that the experience of war transformed them from human beings into animals; no longer capable of determining the course of
their own lives, they were little more than cannon-fodder.
At the same time their experience of war
rendered them unable to resume their ‘normal’ lives back home. The central character Paul Baumer (Robert Lonsdale)
experienced this quite tangibly when he returned to his small provincial town; while the inhabitants were concerned about
his future, they really had no clue how hellish life on the Front could be. It was almost a relief for him to return to active
service – even though the battle never seemed to end.
The adaptation ended poignantly, with all
of Paul’s comrades being killed off one by one, rather like Agatha Christie’s And
Then There Were None. Paul himself remained unmoved by such losses; for him life was just a matter of personal survival.
In the end he too lost his life: an announcer informed us in passionless tones that there was “nothing new to report
on the Western Front.” The comment rammed home the novel’s anti-war message: mindless slaughter had now become
so much a fact of life that no one cared about it any more. Truly the First World War was a war to end all wars.