Band of brothers

Film - Philip Kerr on the re-release of the great war movie that made him a pacifist

As Michael Hofmann makes clear in the introduction to his excellent new translation of Ernst Junger's book Storm of Steel (Penguin, £14.99), Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was neither the first memoir of the First World War (it was published in 1929) nor the best. "Ernst Junger's book," wrote Andre Gide in 1942, "is without question the finest book on war that I know."

I wouldn't disagree with that. Even so, it's easy to see why Carl Laemmle, then head of Universal Pictures, should have chosen to purchase Remarque's book instead of Junger's. Of Storm of Steel, Hofmann writes: "It has no pacifist design. It makes no per- sonal appeal. It is a notably unconstructed book. It does not set the author and his experience in any sort of context."

Remarque's book may lack the close detail and atmosphere of Junger's, but it did reflect the pacifism of the 1920s and, in T E Lawrence's phrase, "the distilled bitterness of the generation shot to pieces by the war". Remarque himself was not a Jew, as the Nazis claimed, but a Roman Catholic who, like Paul Baumer, the hero of the book, joined up with his German classmates and, fired by the romantic ideal of defending the Fatherland, went off to the front. Remarque was seriously injured at the Battle of Flanders in 1917, and he spent a year recovering in hospital while his remaining classmates were killed or maimed.

Having bought the book, Laemmle appointed Lewis Milestone to direct. While his version is easily the best, it isn't the only one; another version was made in 1979, starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. It is the earlier version that has now been restored to its full glory.

The story is predictable enough. Paul (Lew Ayres) and his friends arrive at the front, the enlisted victims of an ageing Prussian schoolmaster's classroom demagoguery. To the amused contempt of the old soldiers who have been there for a while, the new arrivals are full of enthusiasm for the war. The fatherly Kat (Louis Wolheim) takes Paul under his wing as he and his comrades face up to the bitter disillusionment of life and death on the front. None of these characters is particularly heroic. There are no great acts of valour performed by the men, and all that Kat, Paul and their comrades care about is a decent meal, a pretty face, home and survival. It is hard to believe a Hollywood-produced movie could ever end with all the protagonists dead, but that's what happens here, and reveals the final irony in the title. It is quiet on the western front because all of these men, young and old, are dead.

Milestone's camerawork was extremely innovative for its time, and the authenticity of the production is remarkable: the almost documentary-like action sequences provide as realistic a portrayal of the Great War as has ever existed on film. The editing is no less impressive and doubtless reflects Milestone's experience working as D W Griffiths's editor on The Birth of a Nation. But where the film really scores - and remember, this picture was one of the first "talkers" - is in the dialogue, in the scenes between Kat and Paul and, most famously, in the scene that takes place in a shell-hole between Paul and a French soldier he has mortally wounded - surely one of the most moving scenes in cinema history. Without wishing to take anything away from Milestone, I suspect that George Cukor, the film's line producer and dialogue coach, may have had a lot to do with the excellence of these particularly human scenes.

The film won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1930 and this newly restored version should on no account be missed. I will never forget the first time I saw All Quiet on the Western Front and, like many men and women of my postwar generation, I suspect that of all the anti-war pictures - La Grande Illusion (1937), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr Strangelove (1964), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) - it had the most profound influence on my subsequent and enduring pacifism.

Tony Blair is only three years older than I am, and I find it almost incomprehensible that someone from a generation who came of age during the Vietnam war, who read the war poets and R C Sheriff's Journey's End at school, who listened to the songs of Joan Baez and John Lennon, who saw the war protesters on TV, and who must surely once have seen this marvellous film, could march this country into so many military conflicts.

If the film has one simple message, it is this: that all men are brothers. I suspect that the two million people who marched through London on 15 February 2003 felt exactly the same way.

All Quiet on the Western Front (PG) is on general release