All Quiet on the Western Front has long been my favorite war book; however, I have not been able to re-read this book for fear of once again feeling all the overwhelming sadness it had instilled in my soul. Today, while cleaning out the house, I found an old essay I wrote about the adapted film by AVID Home Entertainment (1992) for my junior-year Literature class. It brought back all the feeling and reminded me how good a book can be. It’s not my best writing, but I was surprised to find some impressive vocabulary I used to use. I was also surprised I have read A Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce even though I have no memory of what it was about.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: A Prime Illustration of Realism by Displaying the Horrors of War

Realism, as a genre, exposes the deep natural inwardness and behavior of the people, i.e., realism shows both good and bad sides in people’s heart and display how they face with themselves and their environment. However, not as Colonialism and Gothic with metaphor and symbolism, realism typically display the main ideas in realistic stories by personification and imagery. These rhetorical means giving spirit and humanizing the setting surrounding the main character by describing its normal happening and as an action of human in personification and as a true and imaginative figure in imagery. This results in the reciprocolization between the roles of the characters and the conflict in the story insofar as the purpose of using personification and imagery is bringing the environment in the story into real life by making it as another human character in order to give readers the full insights of the story. Therefore, the themes of the author come from two sides: the true main character’s side and the imaginary character’s, and relying on that, the themes of realism is more real and easier to convey to the audience. A prime illustration of realism: the film All Quiet on the Western Front (AVID Home Entertainment 1992), which used the environment in personification and imagery to cover the perspectives of a young German soldier – Paul, describes the frightfulness of war and its effect on people.

Most of the scenes in the film are about the fight in World War I between Germany and France, especially from the German soldiers’ side. The soldiers who directly took part in the fight were the very victims of the war to the degree that they were under the control of the war. There is reciprocolization here when people who started the war now get the affliction from it. The film describes this affliction by lots of impressive scenes that not only illustrate the fright of war but also illustrate the realism. There are full of wounded soldiers and corpses at the battlefield: The image of the corpse with lots of rats moving around is a good example for this, it arouses the audience to the ravage and mercilessness of war; although there is just one dead body, it makes us think of the close relationship between death and war. Death in war is a pride but death is a misery by itself. Furthermore, these deaths are not only because of the ammunition of the enemy, but also because they are the obvious result and destruction of war, so war and ammunition here become the invisible characters that most influence the real characters in the film: they kill the soldiers. Another invisible character is the sound: the sound of war, the sound of bombs and grenades, the cry of people and especially the cry of the horse going wild which was described most clearly. These sounds scare the soldiers as they are the first images and sounds the soldiers saw and were most impressed by them. The soldiers saw the out-of-control horses since they see the horror of war and they look at those horses as creatures being affected from war, and saw what lay ahead for them in their future. The noises come to them intensely and no matter how they feel or what they do, they cannot stop those noises, so they become the passive state and be controlled by the noise. And consequently, they become more and more dependent on the war around them. The change of the characters in each situation as it occurred proves this point. The first example is the conductor that taught the soldiers how to fight. He was a model for the soldiers about strictness, bravery and experienced in the way he taught them. However, he is one of the people who hides while others were fighting and in the next scene, his very student is the one called him out. It might be his fault when he did that but it might not be. Though his action is not appropriate to his situation and position of leadership, it is normal insofar as he is only human being like other. He is the common feeling of soldiers in war: they think they can control themselves, but in fact they cannot. The most terrifying enemy is not the soldier of the opposite side but the person inside their hear that they cannot control. War came and changed them, took control of their feelings, their lives, and killed them. Another example for fear in people’s hearts over what they passed is the wounded soldiers in the catholic hospital. Here, when someone died or is only dying, he will be taken to the death room and he would say “Goodbye war! Goodbye life!” War has become the life of the soldiers as they say so. A soldier life is to fight life. These soldiers couldn’t imagine their fighting future before they join the army. Therefore, what happened was a shock and it was hard for them to accept it. However, no matter how life is, people always want to live and they only realize it when they are going to die. In those scenes, there was a soldier who is dying but doesn’t want to be taken to the death room, and there was another one trying to suicide. This reflects two sides of repercussions that war caused to the soldiers, that’s why these soldiers have different attitudes but those attitudes all prove the trepidation of war and they also make the audiences feel their feelings and understand them more thoroughly. And the clearest example is from the 18-year-old German soldier Paul. Paul is just like all of his friends: he is a student with lots of dreams and aspirations at the beginning of the film when he has not joined the army – the war life – yet. The gradual modification from war on Paul is expressed unquestionably when Paul coming back from the war. Almost all of his comrades were dead and he seemed to get used to it. In the letter he wrote to his mother, he affirmed that “My business is killing… I’m a soldier.” He was obsessed by his duty in his troop and now he cannot come back to his normal life even if that was what he wanted when he was still on the front line. The only thing left within him is fear as he said to his teacher “… only scared life, no more” when his teacher praised him as a hero of the nation and felt proud of Paul. Besides the horror of bombs and shells, Paul met the redoubtable enemy that every soldier is also scared of: It is the contrariety between humanity and duty. By creating the meeting of Paul and a French soldier, the contrariety shows the impossible thing that human being cannot do. Paul killed that French soldier for that is his duty in the army but he felt sorry and regretted for that as he hide the moaning and dying French man. Even Paul said to the French “We are the same in everything”, he could not do anything. War not only demolished people’s body, but also obviated people to connected with their humanity. This situation is hard to accept for both the characters and the audiences. The film brought situation like this to the audiences to raise the sympathy from them to soldier’s life to the extent that it transfers the true feeling of the soldiers in the film to the audiences. As a consequence, the film displayed how the war overpowered the soldier by telling a real story about their lives. The characters – the soldiers – are at the mercy of war. This is the same as the main character in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce insofar as Paul and Farquhar have the same task in conveying the authors’ themes by being the real yet unreal main character, and the very environment thus become the main character as it is the one that takes the responsibility of controlling the evolution of the story and the film.

an occurrence at owl creek bridge

In An Occurrence at Owl Creak Bridge, Farquhar is the main character who is described in dying. However, he is only a mere bystander of his environment. In the story, the environment is described clearly in detail: each motion of the water, each frequency of the sound… everything is showed as human actions. Farquhar has his own mind and will but he is still overpowered by the environment in the way he could not save himself. Bierce used personification as a literary device in this realistic story in order to make the lesson he wants to teach clearer. This style of writing using the environment as the conveying instruments and the main character as a result of the environment’s influence. That is the similarity between Farquhar and Paul. Both of them were controlled by the background in the story and the film although through different methods.  Moreover, Farquhar and Paul are used as the shadow to set off the theme from the background: life value from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and war horror from All Quiet on the Western Front.

Another device that is often used in literature is irony. Irony is the use of words that say the opposite of what the author really means. In the film, there was one very excellent scene that illustrate not only irony but also metaphor, that is the irony image of the bird and the beginning and the end of the film. Bird is usually used as a symbol for peace in literature and we can first feel that as a sign of hope of the people in the film. However, Paul was stopped twice when he drew the bird as he drew his dream: the first time is in the classroom when the teacher tells him “more time to work, less time to play” and “stop dreaming”; the second time is at the battlefield and he was shot while he was drawing the bird in the sky, his death stops him. Her comes the irony in the meaning of the bird to the degree that the bird is a symbol for peace but it stops life instead. And by using this irony, the theme of the film is consolidated more and more: War is horror; it destroys all the obstacles on its way no matter what the obstacle is – people of their dream. This irony is also imbued the tittle of the film itself insofar as it made the Western Front truly quiet, it killed the last person of the class of 1916. Nobody remains in war even if they are still alive or not. And the title itself also strengthens the theme of the film: War is horror.


Photo Credit: Katie Ruby, Youth Voices,