This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 German novel by director Lewis Milestone, Maxwell Anderson, and others won the best picture and director Oscars and may be the greatest anti-war movie.
The foreword tells of a generation destroyed by war. German soldiers march in the streets to war. A teacher urges his boys to enlist, saying, "It is sweet to die for the fatherland." The students volunteer and march out singing. In the barracks the recruits are eager to fight. Himmelstoss (John Wray) comes in and demands respect as an officer. He trains them by marching; but they get some revenge when he orders them to dive into the mud on their last day. At the front Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) asks the veterans about food. Katczinsky (Lewis Wolheim) is out looking and returns with a pig. Kat doesn't want money but trades for tobacco and other items. A truck takes them to fight. Kat gives advice. Shells explode, and Dave is blinded and killed. In a foxhole for five days under attack Kat slugs two recruits who panic. Kat brings in a loaf of bread, and they kill rats. In the trench they face invasion. Attackers not shot down by machine guns enter the trench and fight hand to hand. Eighty of 150 return and get extra beans and bread. They discuss how war starts and don't want it.
Paul and his friends visit wounded Kemmerick (Ben Alexander), who learns he lost his leg. Muller (Russell Gleason) asks for his boots. Paul prays for Kemmerick; after he dies, he takes his boots to Muller. Of the twenty students nine are dead. The soldiers laugh at Himmelstoss and refuse to salute. They advance on a town men died over before. Paul hides in a crater as men run one way and then the other. Paul stabs an enemy and later helps him. He dies, and Paul asks to be forgiven. Kat consoles Paul.
Paul and Albert (William Bakewell) drink beer and think about girls. They and two others bathe in the river and meet three French women. Tjaden (Slim Summerville) offers them bread and wine; but the guard says not to cross the river. While Kat is getting Tjaden drunk, the other three return at night. Paul kisses Suzanne's hand as she eats; unseen they talk in the bedroom. While marching Paul is wounded in the side by a shell and is taken to a hospital. Albert has his leg amputated.
Paul goes home to his mother and sister. Older men show him a map and say, "Push on to Paris." Paul returns to the schoolroom, and the teacher asks him to speak. He says they try not to die and questions the war. The students call him a coward. Paul returns to the 2nd company to find few left joined by boys 16 and eating sawdust. Paul finds Kat out looking for food. Kat says the enemy has more planes and tanks. A plane drops a bomb, wounding Kat in the leg. Paul carries him; but Kat is killed by the plane, and Paul discovers later he is dead. In the trench Paul reaches for a butterfly and is shot by a sniper. In the final scene ghostly soldiers march toward a cemetery looking back.
Thus we see the beautiful spirits of youth perverted by heartless killing in a war people thought would be over in a few months but turned into four years of hell on earth. This film was banned in Germany until 1960, because its anti-war message is powerful. Lew Ayres went on to become a conscientious objector in World War II, serving in a medical unit. This movie can help people learn vicariously what so many millions have suffered in painful reality.