The date was April 6, 1917. The Western Front of northern France lay as evidence to the desolation of World War I. Starting in 1914 and lasting five years, World War I saw twenty million deaths and forty million casualties. This war was the first to be fought with such large-scale involvements, where such mass destruction and desolation were never seen before in the world – an event that can only be exposed, not dramatized, nor sugar-coated, nor heroized. While it is easier to “go” to war, it is not easy to “fight” in war, and it is undeniable that all who had joined never returned without invisible scars. But after all, is it not “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country)?
“[This] is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. I will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war” – Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
The film opens on a field of green grass and white flowers. The day would have been more pleasant if it weren’t for the thick spread of grey clouds blotting out the sky. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield lie resting in the field. 27 year-old Schofield, a veteran of the Somme and Blake, a stout, younger man with an optimistic personality have their eyes closed. However, when kicked by an approaching officer, both open their eyes in a rude awakening, their calm, enjoyable peace gone. Addressing Blake, the officer curtly says, “Pick a man, bring your kit.” They had a mission.
Walking across the grassy make-shift camp, Blake and Schofield, grimly joke about what little food they expected in camp. As they enter the trenches, Blake mentions the delay in his leave, and Schofield sorrowfully yet knowingly answers, “It’s easier not to go back at all.” In a dark room dug out in the trenches, higher officers give the two friends their dangerous mission: to carry a message to Col. Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which would call off an attack that would have jeopardized the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother because of a German trap. To do so, they must venture over the desolation between their trenches and the Germans’ because telephone communications have been cut. And they had to do it alone.
“Sir, is it just us?”
“Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone.”
With their mission, the two men make their way through the trenches, Schofield cautious and Blake propelled by determination. He has to save his brother and the 1,600 men. They do not know what dangers this one mission could bring, but they silently understand their duty. In the trenches, they pass countless men who are starving, huddled, and dead silent. Everything else but waiting is pointless; they cannot move from the trenches. Several men working on the wires above had already been retrieved, shot and mangled from enemy fire. Despite his experiences, Schofield’s gaze still lingers on a bloodied man carried on a stretcher in the opposite direction. Schofield moves on. A rightfully cynical officer motions the two men to a ladder leading to the level ground. His views are the same as every man who stepped foot on this dead man’s territory. “Cheer up; there’s a medal in it. Nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow.”
Knowing they could be shot at any moment, Schofield then Blake began picking their way with rifles poised through the absolute desolation of the land between the enemy lines and their trenches. The sky was grey-white. There was nothing but turned-up black, scarred earth, barbed wire, and masses of bodies. Rotting human and horse corpses alike lay splayed awkwardly, collecting hoards of flies. There was only pulsing silence. At one time, Schofield falls into the rotting corpse of an ally or perhaps it was an enemy, yet rats scurried out of its chest cavity all the same. Countless corpses lie half-swallowed by the mud as the two men continue. They hear nothing; there was only pulsing silence. Even so, they have to continue.
This begins the in-depth analysis of the movie. Spoilers ahead –
Great, sweeping tones of music complement the men’s trepidation and determination as they finally approach the enemy line. But – “They really have gone!” The recently deserted German trench mirrors that of the allies’. Upon entering a bunker, hoping to find a way through, Schofield peers at a faded, abandoned family photograph. Though it’s certainly no revelation, these men, too, have families, even if they are on the other side of no-man’s land.
There is a tunnel at the end. In a moment of pure terror, a rat activates a setup tripwire, and Schofield is buried beneath the initial rubble from the resulting explosion. As the whole structure begins to crumble, Blake bravely remains to dig him out. Regardless of the danger to his own life, Blake retrieves his friend from death’s door. Desperation and cooperation pull them through in time.
“Why in God’s name did you have to choose me?” Schofield groans as he shakily washes the caked dust from his eyes when they reach open air. Regarding their mission, Blake defensively replies:
“I thought it would be easy.”
Though Schofield may seem to be opting out of the mission, his close brush with death is just another in the face of his previous service. He knows what it’s like when others die for their country; it is certainly not a “sweet and fitting” thing. Nevertheless, the two friends steadfastly and loyalty continue on, even beginning to tell stories on the way. Their major life-threatening experience simply becomes a thing of the recent past. Though a rat had just triggered that danger, Blake tells Schofield of an amusing story about a comrade whose ear had been bitten clean off by a rat. However, the two remain ever watchful of the trees and ridges, their expressions grim. They have to continue.
As they trek through the trees and across grassy fields, Schofield thanks Blake for his bravery, figuring he could receive a medal for it. Knowing Schofield once received a medal for the Battle of the Somme (a dismal failure where almost 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day), Blake inquires about it, but Schofield does not have it.
“I didn’t lose it. I swapped it … for a bottle of wine … I was thirsty.”
“You should have at least given it to your family. People died for that.”
“Look, it’s just a bit of bloody tin! It doesn’t make anyone special. It makes no difference to anyone.” His sharp reply makes clear he is disillusioned by the war. When countless needlessly die in the war simply to gain a few inches of ground, what honor is there in gaining a medal bestowed by those who don’t even participate in the fighting themselves?
Suddenly, the two find themselves at the edge of a vast expanse of green fields with an abandoned, run-down farm not too far off. They discover an orchard of cherry trees – freshly chopped down and in full bloom. As they lament the senseless act of destruction, Blake states with hope that their seeds will now spread.
“You’ll end up with more trees than before.”
After ensuring the security of the vicinity, the two friends witness a German plane begin to fail during an aerial dogfight. This would destroy both their worlds as the plane crashed into the shed where they were moments before. Although they retrieved the German pilot from the burning wreckage, Blake violently cries out because the German stabs him in the stomach. Two shots from Schofield’s rifle end the pilot’s life, but it’s too late; Blake writhes in agony as he bleeds into the mud. Trying to support his dying friend, Schofield frantically presses bandages into Blake’s side. Blood stains their nails as every movement causes a fresh spurt of blood to pour over Blake’s fingers.
“Am I dying?”
“…Yes, I think you are.”
Blake’s face of frantic disgust at his not-so-valiant end is overcome by terrified acceptance. Pressing Blake’s family picture to his bloody chest is about all Schofield could do as his friend dies in his arms.
“Will you write to my mum for me? … Tell her I wasn’t scared. I love them.”
Schofield soothingly comforts him by describing the direction he will take. He has not lost their way, but the mission must continue. They have to continue.
“Then I’ll find your brother, just like you, a little older.” He trails off because he realizes his friend is dead. This younger man had much to live for, yet he did not even live to see his older brother again. After taking his rings and dog tag, Schofield jerks in alarm because two British soldiers called out to him, having seen the wreckage smoke. A superior officer of a passing British unit approaches Schofield.
“A friend? … Come with me. That’s an order … We can take you part of your way.”
“Sir?” Schofield whispers. However, he rises and obeys with one more glance at his fallen comrade’s slowly cooling body as it lay in the mud. Even when it would be “dulce et decorum” to kneel and grieve for his fallen friend, Schofield cannot even afford the time to mourn. He cannot do what seems like such a basic right toward this dead man, who only moments before was speaking about hope in cherry blossoms.The mission must be completed.
A whole British unit had arrived at the farmhouse. A grim-faced Schofield is greeted with the angry voice of a British higher-up as he sits in his cushioned vehicle, growling about the uselessness of soldiers as his men struggle to lift a fallen tree obstructing the road. Forced to move on from the tragedy he just witnessed, Schofield clambers into the covered vehicle with a band of young sweary soldiers. Their jokes might have come across as raw, irreverent, and anger-invoking, but there was nothing Schofield could have done for Blake. There was nothing left to do. Life must move on. What did they know? He only stares ahead. As they drive away from the farm, Schofield’s grief is clear in his dead eyes.
Upon hitting and sinking into a pothole, Schofield’s anxiety grows, knowing he has to reach his destination by the morning. He pleads with the nonchalant men to help him push the vehicle free. He has to continue.
“We haven’t the time … please, I have to go now, please.”
Putting all his grief and desperation into the endeavor, the men succeed in pushing the truck out. The men now know Schofield has some higher mission.
“Why did they send you on your own?”
“They didn’t. There were two of us.”
“You’ll never make it.”
“Yes, I will.”
Schofield leaves the unit by a destroyed bridge near Écoust-Saint-Mein. One soldier, seemingly wiser than the others simply states: “I hope you get there.” 1,600 lives are on the line, including Blake’s older brother. He has to continue.
Schofield resumes on foot, picking his way across the decimated bridge. Suddenly, the sharp crack of a rifle jerks him into frantic action. Though the cover is not scarce due to the destruction, Schofield shoots at the lone sniper’s window enough times to safely reach the foot of the sniper’s building. Knowing the enemy is on the other side of the door, Schofield breathes while clutching his gun. One false move and 1,600 men die with him. Upon opening the door, both men – one German, one British – shoot each other simultaneously. Schofield blacks out.
Schofield awakens in the darkness to water dripping on his face. While tapping his watch confirms it is broken, he knows this must have cost him hours of time. Thus, he has no more to lose. Picking himself up once more, he stumbled out of the building.
Magnificent, sweeping notes accompany the sight of what is left of the brilliant town. While absolutely decimated, a number of brick structures still stand, casting vast shadows as great glowing orange lights burned in the distance. The town was on fire. The shadows rise and fall as the light changes. One moment, it is as clear as day, the next as dark as the night. The music continues to swell. It was both terrifying and beautiful, grotesque and captivating. Schofield’s frantic stumbling turns into a blind sprint as shots fire at him from nowhere. He throws himself on the ground for cover, but he has to continue.
He safely hides from the intense danger in one building only to find it a refuge for a young French woman and a child who was not her own. She pleads with him in terror.
“Anglais! I am a friend! Not German!”
Despite not understanding her French well, Schofield confirms that he is on the right track, but he cannot help but stay a moment, offering the woman the entirety of his food as if he senses the immediateness of death. He sits, as he allows the infant girl to play with his cracked and dirtied hands. He softly recites a poem to her. A moment of tender peace and respite in the chaos of battle. Young, innocent life is made more beautiful in the face of hardened, broken lives and dreams smashed by the destruction of war. The distant striking of a far off bell signals to Schofield that it is early morning. The woman pleads with him in supplication, but he cannot give up his mission. He has to continue.
Schofield shoulders his weapon and entered the burning town. Schofield encounters more German soldiers, strangling one and pushing past another who is drunk. He soon finds himself running through the shadowed streets, multiple enemy shots barely missing him. In order to escape, Schofield abandons himself to fate and jumps into a raging river. His struggles weaken until he clings to a floating branch, relaxing his will to live due to his utter exhaustion. Despite all his struggle and sheer will power to live and continue, the pain of war bears down on his spirit, and he nears defeat.
It isn’t until small pinkish-white specks catch his eye when he lifts his head to find himself surrounded by hundreds of fresh cherry petals floating on the calm river beside him as birds chirp above. Several cherry trees line the water’s banks. Blake died for their mission. Though he was cut down, his efforts must spread. He has to continue.
Reinvigorated, Schofield propels himself forward. He only dully reacts when he sees a number of blue, water-logged corpses clogging up the flow of the river. Their faces are swollen, and one man’s tongue is bulging out of his mouth. After clambering over the corpses, Schofield breaks down by the water’s edge. He begins to half sob, half retch from the events of the past 24 hours. There is no rectitude or virtue in them, simply two men struggling to fulfill a single purpose in ugly reality. It is morning now.
The faintest tones of far-off singing break Schofield from his daze, and walking as if half-dead, he follows the voice through the woods. As the voice becomes clearer and clearer, he stumbles in on a large group of soldiers sitting and listening to one standing soldier who is singing a sorrowful song before they enter battle – to their deaths.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While trav’ling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
I know dark clouds will gather ’round me