Is it possible for a single theme to exist in the past and still live today? This question is easily answered through a movie of the past and a story of the present. In 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front was released to the public. The film was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, directed by Lewis Milestone, and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. (“All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 film)”). The present day story was written on www.usatoday.com on November 8, 2012, and is entitled: “On Veterans Day, a vet’s suicide haunts those left behind (Raasch).” Despite the time period difference and the type of media, both share the common theme of sorrow. The film and story have numerous similarities that express the theme by using events, processes, feelings, and emotions. Sorrow has stayed consistent throughout the past and present and has proved itself to be a timeless theme. War changes people. It turns soldiers into new people where the only real life is no longer at home but on the battlefield. For years, Vietnam veteran, Jeffery Davis, was haunted by memories that originated from the war. On Sept. 15, 1984, Davis approached the memorial wall in D.C. and shot himself beside an oak tree (Raasch).
His wife Alice Franks and their children, Scott and Kelly, were left on their own. Scott was 3 at the time, and Kelly was 6. Kelly remembers how ecstatic she was to show the neighbor kids’ new Cabbage Patch dolls to her mother just before Alice told her that her father was dead. Scott does not remember anything from that day, but he still felt the anger, grief, and guilt the others shared (Raasch). “I was pretty angry, I got into trouble, I lashed out. I felt abandoned almost” (Raasch). It became a daily routine for Scott to read the newspaper story about his father’s death, with the goal of going through it without crying. Scott eventually learned to accept his father’s fate. The family struggled through their mixed emotions and unanswered questions over the following years, with every Veterans Day standing as a reminder of what happened. Davis’s family knew he dealt with traumatic experiences and that he only felt relaxed around other Vietnam veterans.
It has been especially hard for Alice to approach the wall, yet over time she had come to admire it for its mystical elegance. The memorial wall was the last place Davis went to, which became a magnet to attract his family. Alice glances at the wall and the surrounding oak trees every time she passes jogs by. She wonders which oak tree her husband leaned against before he died, “…And I probably always will” (Raasch). Alice, Kelly, and Scott forgave and accepted their husband and father departing from their lives, and the Vietnam veteran still lives on in their hearts.
There are many similar events that share the common theme of sorrow in this present day story of the Vietnam veteran committing suicide and “All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), a sensitive film burst upon the American movie scene in 1930” (Lorence 45). Davis could not shake off the painful memories he held, one of which being a fight over a Vietnamese-controlled village where he thinks he killed a child. “It was one of those split-second decisions they had to make,” Alice explains. “And it haunted him, just horribly” (Raasch). The traumatic war experiences Davis went through reinforced the choice to take his life by his own hands using a pistol. I believe Bäumer did exactly this in the last scene of the movie, except he did not use a gun, he used a butterfly. At the end of All Quiet on the Western Front, Bäumer had reached his tolerance peak. He had witnessed an excessive amount of wounds and death at this point in the film. He had seen Joseph Behm flail around in the trenches after losing his sight, eventually succumbing to a mortar shell.
He had witnessed Franz Kemmerich slowly approaching death after his leg was amputated, and was dealing with an infection. Bäumer constantly witnessed his comrades fall as war picked them off one by one. Sitting in the trenches, Bäumer peaked out of an opening in the wall he had used for cover, and caught a glimpse of a butterfly. Disregarding all safety precautions, he exposed his body as he slowly extended his arm out to stroke the beautiful butterfly. Off in the distance, a perched sniper easily spotted the vulnerable soldier, and shot Bäumer dead on the spot. Afterwards, the closing credits roll, leaving the scene open to interpretation. I think Bäumer wanted to accept death instead of a life running away from it. Movie critics might argue that he already had a gun by his side; therefore it was not an act of suicide. Like Davis, he was plagued by horrible memories, yet he was a different man before deployment. Bäumer was filled with sorrow for his unexpected journey, a trip that greatly contrasted from the trip his hometown professor Kantorek spoke of.
In reaching for the butterfly, Bäumer yearned for the life of beauty and innocence he once had in his childhood years, the feeling of youth, and the time of being unattached to his war duties. This is why I think the scene portrays Bäumer’s act of suicide. The two soldiers Davis and Bäumer can easily relate to one another. They were sorrowful because of what they experienced, which indicates how the theme is alive both in the past and present. Davis was aware of the high tensions that ran through his family, and that he only felt relaxed around other fellow Vietnam veterans. Most these veterans carry memories of a war that began 50 years ago (Raasch). In All Quiet on the Western Front, Bäumer finally earns his leave to go home for 17 days. When he arrives in his hometown he quickly realizes that he cannot share any of his experiences with his family. It was obvious that he carried the heavy burdens of war on his shoulder, a much desensitized man, unlike the rest of the hometown civilians. His sister is delighted to see her brother, but questions why he seems so preoccupied.
Bäumer asks where their mother is, and he attends to her sick body in bed upstairs. While on his stay, it also became evident that he only really felt at home with his squad, which closely relates to Davis the Vietnam Veteran. In some ways, Davis liked the combat in Vietnam. Davis started to skydive shortly before he died, and Alice thinks he was trying to replicate adrenaline rushes and the highs of war. Davis would often talk and watch war movies with several police friends who were also Vietnam veterans. When Davis was in Vietnam, he would constantly write letters to his second cousin, Anita Magures, who was six years older than he was. The letters he wrote “were all the macho, whip-ass hype that he was sold when he went into the service,” Magures goes on to say: “But by the end…he was counting the seconds” (Raasch). For Bäumer, his excitement also matched Davis’s in the scene when he hears about the “aggressive patriotism in the efforts of the elderly schoolteacher to inspire his young students to enlist in defense of the fatherland” (Lorence 47).
Bäumer and his classmates were extremely happy to hear what it would be like to join the brotherhood and serve their country. In the end, Bäumer too was counting down the seconds to get home, especially after “the depiction of slow death in the foxhole scene in which Bäumer confronts and finally kills a French soldier, whose utter humanity is revealed when Bäumer searches his wallet only to discover that he is a family man…” (Lorence 47). Bäumer discovers his name is Gerard Duval and is a father and a husband back home. Bäumer becomes very sorrowful and prays to God for mercy and compassion. During the visit back home, Bäumer enters his old classroom and Kantork happily urges him to tell the students in the class what it is like to serve his country, why he went, how much it means to him. Bäumer summaries his experience by stating the harsh conditions of trench warfare, and how many good men die out in battle.
This is very similar to Davis’s letters where Davis wrote that the U.S. was “taking a beating” and “it hardly seems worth the effort to do anything” (Raasch). Just like Bäumer, Davis wrote about how good men were dying in Vietnam, in fact, many of them were his buddies. Bäumer then turns to his professor saying: “You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country don’t you? We used to think you knew, the first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all (“All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 film)”)!” Bäumer and Davis both share resentment for the high amount of eagerness they once had, despite the fact that Bäumer feels this about WWI, and Davis feels this way about Vietnam. Sorrow is a common feeling the two soldiers share, standing as a timeless theme.
Sorrow exists in All Quiet on the Western Front and in Davis’s story, and has shown consistency in both the past and present. Sorrow has cloaked itself and taken the form of many types of events, processes, feelings, and emotions. These include: witnessing the death of comrades, death, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, regretting enlisting in the armed forces, and transformation. The death of Gerard Duval was the major cause of sorrow that stuck with Bäumer, and the memory would most likely follow Bäumer to his grave. This traumatic event in Bäumer’s life probably caused PTSD, which is also seen in the present day story of Davis’s suicide. Davis also had to witness the death of his comrades in battle, the most likely the cause of his suicide. Many psychologists diagnose returning war veterans with PTSD, as well as Vietnam veterans who still seek help. Traumatizing experiences are the backbone to PTSD, and can be the cause of suicide, which thrives in the mind of soldiers as well as civilians, both in the past and the present.
All Quiet on the Western Front hints that soldiers think about suicide, as displayed in the butterfly scene. In this day and age of technology and access to information, it is surprising when soldiers unknowingly enlist and enter the armed forces when they do not know what lies ahead. In the past, as seen in the classroom scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, new recruits get talked into joining the military, army, or navy without realizing the facts of war. The same lure occurs today, as recruiters glorify war, eager to get a strong, fit soldier to fight for their country. Transformation is a process that has also been consistent over time. Soldiers of the past and present return home as new people. That is, someone who has seen it all, killed and saved lives.
All Quiet on the Western Front shows this process occurred to all of Bäumer’s classmates. The inexperienced soldiers watched in horror as Behm lost his sight and screamed helplessly around the trenches to his death. The soldiers saw the fate of their comrade; they listened to the nightmares of Franz Kemmerich in the trenches, and discovered what it was like to go hungry on what little rations were left in time of war. Bäumer was the last and most changed classmate of them all. Present day veterans go through the same process of transformation. Bäumer told Kantorek that war was a lot different on the frontlines than it is in words, that men were simply being sent out to die. Davis also too talked about how pointless war seemed in his letters, that good men were dying and he had to live with that. The accumulation of events, processes, feelings, and emotions both soldiers went through shows how sorrow has stayed consistent over time.
“All Quiet on the Western Front left a deep impression on American audiences, whose members found it difficult to think of its characters as enemies beyond redemption (Lorence 49).” The film taught the American public that themes and life lessons not only dwelled among people of their own nationality, but in other countries and their citizens as well. The film was shot through the perspective of German soldiers, allowing American audiences to watch how the soldiers dealt with their problems, and how they faced sorrow. The story of the Veteran posted by Chuck Raasch on November 8, 2012, closely resembles the feeling of sorrow that Bäumer felt during his time in the service. Bäumer and Davis had many comparisons that revolved around how they obtained their sorrows and how they coped with them.
Each of the soldiers left a family behind, were mentally tortured by their memories of traumatic experiences, witnessed their comrades die, embraced an unexpected new reality of war, realized how different life seemed back home then when they left it, and finished their life by giving up. Sorrow has stayed consistent across time by entering the lives of those of the past and of the present. Although Bäumer was a fictional character, Davis the Vietnam veteran has a lot in common with the WWI soldier.
“All Quiet on the Western Front (film) – Wikiquote.” Wikiquote. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(film). Lorence, James J.. “The End of Romantic War: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Disillusionment in the Interwar Era.” Screening America: United States history through film since 1900. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 44-54. Print. Raasch, Chuck. “On Veterans Day, a vet’s suicide haunts those left behind.”USA TODAY: Latest World and US News – USATODAY.com. N.p., 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/08/veterans-day-vietnam-vet-suicide-haunts-family/1693443/.