Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front, is about a group of students who enroll in the army during The Great War. The film begins with the students still in school, listening to propaganda urging males to enlist; after rushing to enlist, they enter training where they express their fantasies of life as heroic soldiers. As they move into the trenches though, experiencing warfare and death first-hand, the former students come to realize the true hardships of being a soldier. This film represents the beginning of my analysis of a correlation existing between setting, uniforms and social status. The setting emphasizes status by drawing on circles to represent the students’, while straight lines represent the soldiers’. In addition to the setting in the film, soldier uniforms can be considered most influential over shaping a person’s status (Hanson 390). Thus, these men represent the initial transformation war uniforms construct on pre-war status, emphasizing their resistance towards change, but eventual acceptance into the contrived social status of a soldier.
The first time the students come into contact with their uniforms is when they first get to training camp. Before any training begins, they receive their uniforms to put on in the barracks. While trying to put on the outfits, some of the males describe fantasies of themselves worshipped while in uniform; they still have not yet risen in status though because they have not taken on the soldier mentality. This can be seen as superior officer Himmelstoss comes into the room. As seen in the still below, he walks in calling for the students to line up. His superior status is conveyed through his stance as his arms and legs make straight lines. In the background as well, there are guns lining the wall in straight lines, also supporting his rigid personality. The students though do not follow his orders; instead they circle him questioning his better-looking uniform. They also imply they know him outside of the war setting, stating that Himmelstoss had a lower status then. One student even addresses him in a demeaning way, remarking “Hey, why is his uniform better than mine?” The circular shape the students make is a direct contrast to Himmelstoss’ straight lines, and represents their previous social status in school. Himmelstoss corrects their disobedient actions, screaming at the males to line up, and pointing towards where they are supposed to be. The combination of his arm making a straight line, as well as the guns seen between him and the students foreshadows the unwavering transformation the students are going to embark on, starting with addressing Himmelstoss in a superior manner.
The camera then slowly pans out to show the students lining up half-dressed in their uniforms. The sloppy-looking uniforms convey their inability at this point to take on their new status. As Himmelstoss yells to “forget what you have been,” the set-up of the room has Himmelstoss in the center, surrounded by many straight lines. Seen in the picture below, the straight lines are found in the two rectangular tables in the middle, the students making two straight lines, the guns lining the hallway, the chair legs seen atop the cabinets, and Himmelstoss standing with his arms bent in an authoritative manner. This scene refers to the impending concrete status of the uniforms setting in. Himmelstoss forces them to stand in the straight lines, representing his ability to take away the former social circle status, and pushing them to become true soldiers, not just fantasies. Furthermore, Himmelstoss being the only one correctly wearing his uniform conveys that he is the head authority in the room; everyone else’s status is lower because their uniforms are incorrectly put on. Himmelstoss ends his speech saying, “You are going to be soldiers, and that is all,” foreshadowing the students’ shedding their previous identities. Yet, the circular-shaped lights in the still reveal the students’ resistance to this status quo.
The students convey their resistance to embody the uniform status the night before they depart for the front lines. The scene begins with them hiding in the woods in order to prank Himmelstoss. As they trip him, they circle him and cover his upper body with a sheet, in effect hiding his uniform. As seen in the video below, the students take away Himmelstoss’ superior status by hiding his uniform, allowing for their social circle to again be superior to his. The camera then cuts to someone’s uniform boots walking, symbolizing straight lines; this represents the looming soldier status the students’ will adopt proceeding into battle the next day. Yet, at this time the students can still act within their former social status by playing a practical joke on Himmelstoss. When the camera cuts to an aerial shot of the students dumping Himmelstoss in the mud, viewers see them forming two straight lines with Himmelstoss forming a third in between them. This shot expresses that the students are mocking his authority by mimicking his straight lines. While it seems they are able to rebuff his conceited rule, it is only temporary because his uniform will be discerned when he is uncovered. In addition, the students must turn into soldiers themselves in the morning, beginning their detachment from their student social circle status.
At long last, the students embrace their new soldier status when they encounter Himmelstoss in the trenches; they come to accept their uniform and they can refute his authoritative figure. This shift in viewpoint can be explained by Dr. Dale L. Clifford, who writes that the “uniform marks its wearers as equal members of the indivisible sovereign nation” (363). Given that the students have taken on their uniform identity, they can now realize that Himmelstoss is a fellow soldier not to be intimidated by. When Himmelstoss enters their quarters, the students are again sitting in a circular formation; in contrast Himmelstoss is in an authoritative, straight line stance. Furthermore, he is fully dressed in his uniform while the others are again in a state of undress. This scene is a parallel to the first scene in the barracks when Himmelstoss first confronts them. While Himmelstoss tries to give orders to the circle, instead of listening to him like before, they openly laugh at his rule. As Himmelstoss continues to rave, one student rises to confront him; he is the only one in the group still fully dressed in his uniform. The student proceeds to overcome Himmelstoss’ intimidation, driving him away from the group. He succeeds in this because he embodies his own uniform status, thus allowing himself to see Himmelstoss’ uniform status as no greater than his own. What is more, the student breaks his former social circle status when he stands to confront Himmelstoss. The student comes to represent his own uniform status as he stands in an authoritative straight line. Able to now embody his own command, the former student tangibly demonstrates shedding his previous status, and moving on to the soldier mentality.
By Kelsey Knight