Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dead Man Walking:
The Boots of All Quiet on the Western Front


One of my favorite sequences in All Quiet on the Western Front occurs when director Lewis Milestone follows around a pair of boots as they make their way from one owner to the next. Each owner is a German soldier, desperate for a decent pair of walking boots. In a life filled with rats, dysentery, trench foot, spoiled food and constant assault under fire, a decent pair of boots is tantamount to winning the lottery. Only this lottery turns the winner's luck around on him the second he wins. Each soldier who wears the boots dies.

Roderick Heath, in the comment section of his excellent review of The Big Parade, said of All Quiet on the Western Front, "no matter what else you say about it, you can’t get away from the fact it’s a message picture." I agree, even while also believing it to be one of the greater works of early sound cinema and a film filled with great battle scenes regardless of the era. Still, the point is taken: It's a message picture through and through and the boot scene hammers the message home as hard as any other scene but does so in a self-contained, short film kind of a way. It could exist as its own little movie without the rest of the story surrounding it. Also, the boot scene is the one point in the film in which Paul, the main character, disappears while a vignette breaks out in his absence. Maybe that's why I like it so much: it's all so very self-contained. So self-contained (it's only a minute long!), in fact, that the rest of the movie may as well be elaborate ornamentation surrounding it.

The vignette's full story starts with Paul walking out of the hospital with his recently deceased friend's boots. But the character walking out of the hospital with the boots might as well be anyone as far as the vignette is concerned. After all, Paul isn't around to watch the other soldiers die, he's just there to get the vignette rolling. In it we see two soldiers get the boots bringing the death toll to three, which includes Paul's friend. I like that about it too: it's just two soldiers in the vignette, not five or six. The whole sequence commands a sense of brevity and clutter-free message-making that the rest of the film, great as it is, could have turned to a bit more.