Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Paul's hometown in Germany represents the ordinary world in his story. Although the war is present in the beginning of the film (all those marching soldiers), we aren't seeing the reality of war yet.
The soldiers provide a grand, joyous spectacle for the townsfolk, and the soldiers step proudly in their fresh, clean uniforms. Herr Meyer's quip to Himmelstoss that "War is war and schnapps is schnapps, but business must go on" informs us that the devastation of the Front has yet to affect this place.
During our brief stay in the ordinary world, we also learn about Paul. We first meet him in a classroom, so we know he's young. We also learn that he has dreams and a love of literature when Kantorek notes that Paul has written the first act of a tragedy and hopes to follow in the footsteps of the great German writers Schiller and Goethe.
Call to Adventure
Kantorek's lecture is a literal call to adventure; he flat-out says,
KANTOREK: But now our country calls. The fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country.
After a rousing bit of schoolhouse propaganda, Paul agrees to enlist along with his friends Albert, Mueller, Peter, Leer, and Kemmerick. Behm's reluctant to go, but some teenage peer pressure serves as his call to adventure.
And by adventure we, of course, mean war…which we'll learn is no adventure at all.
Refusal of the Call
Paul's basic training serves as his refusal of the call.
But we mean "refusal" in a really specific way. At no point does Paul say, "Yeah, you know, I don't think I'm feeling this whole war thing. I've decided to take up crochet instead." That's called desertion, and some people were executed for that during WWI—regardless of their mastery of the half double stitch.
Paul's "refusal" is more of a "second guessing." When he and his friends arrive at boot camp, they gleefully discuss the ranks and great deeds they'll achieve in the army.
Instead, boot camp shows them war won't be glorious. Himmelstoss's cruelty and the constant crawling through the mud make them long for the ordinary world they left behind.
Meeting the Mentor
Dispatched to the Western Front, Paul and his friends join the 2nd Company. There, they meet Tjaden, Detering, and Westhus, but it's Kat who will be Paul's mentor.
Kat agrees to feed the new recruits if they can pay (not with money but cigarettes, cognac, and soap). It may look like he's fleecing them—because he technically is—but he's teaching them important lessons, too, such as what items are valuable at the Front and that nothing is for free.
And, throughout the film, he provides advice and comfort for Paul.
Crossing the Threshold
Paul fully crosses the threshold from the ordinary world to the world of war when the 2nd Company is sent to the Front to string barbed wire. While performing their task, they're hit with a bombardment. Shrapnel blinds Behm, and in a painful panic, he dashes into enemy fire.
Paul and his friends suffer their first loss, taste a sample of the dangers awaiting them, and have grown from recruits to soldiers.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
For Paul, this stage is represented by the week-long bombardment and the ensuing defensive. He gains allies as the old war dogs come to respect his ability to remain cool under fire. Even Westhus, who Paul upset earlier, says, "The kid's all right."
Paul also undergoes many tests. He endures extreme hunger. He watches Kemmerick develop combat neurosis, resulting in him running from the dugout and taking some shrapnel in the stomach. Paul must also learn to keep a clear head under constant shelling (or, at least, as clear a head as is humanly possible).
Finally, Paul learns who his enemies are. And, weirdly enough, these enemies aren't the Allied Forces. Instead, the enemies are the many impersonal ways a soldier can be killed or injured on the Front—from bombardments to barbed wire, machine-gun fire to starvation.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
There's no actual cave in All Quiet. In the hero's journey, the cave represents a moment of "terrible danger" and "an inner conflict," and the approach is a moment of rest and reflection before continuing on the treacherous road.
When Paul and the 2nd Company are relieved from the Front, Paul's unknowingly approaching his personal cave.
The company eats its fill and reflects on how wars begin. Paul also visits Kemmerick in the hospital and watches his friend die painfully. It is Paul's most personal experience with death so far, and he reflects that his own life could end just as easily.
The next offensive becomes Paul's most difficult ordeal. The counter-bombardment is fierce, and Paul's injured in a graveyard, forcing him to take shelter in a bombed-out grave, which: yikes. Apparently the only safe place in No Man's Land is among the dead.
When the counter-attack comes, Paul hides in a crater. A French soldier seeks refuge in the same crater, and Paul stabs the man. Caught under crossfire, Paul must spend the day and night with the slowly dying soldier.
This becomes Paul's greatest ordeal: the stress and grief from witnessing the man's suffering at his hands proves traumatizing.
Paul tries to help the soldier but fails. Paul breaks down and cries, begging the corpse for forgiveness.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
The reward for Paul's ordeal is new insight into the nature of the war. The first half of this insight comes when he is begging the French soldier's corpse for forgiveness:
PAUL: You see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy and I was afraid of you. But you're just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me, comrade.
When Paul returns to the German lines, he falls into depression, and Kat provides solace. Kat provides Paul with second half of his insight:
KAT: You couldn't do anything about it. We have to kill. We can't help it. That's what we are here for.
The lesson results in a no-win situation: he doesn't want to kill his enemy, but if he doesn't, he'll be killed himself.
The Road Back
The road back returns Paul to the ordinary world he left in the beginning. Only for Paul, it won't be as easy as taking the bus.
During a bombardment, he and Albert are injured. While staying in a Catholic hospital, Paul fears he'll die from hemorrhaging but manages to recover. After his recovery, he's provided a furlough to return home. Albert, on the other hand, has his leg amputated and sinks into a deep, suicidal depression.
During this stage, a traditional hero would meet his "most dangerous encounter with death." But Paul returns to his childhood home and encounters…his neighbors. The townsfolk aren't dangerous in any physical sense, but their ignorance of the truth of the war is seriously terrifying.
Paul's father's friends insist they know how to obtain a swift and decisive victory, and Kantorek's still teaching his propaganda to a new classroom of young men. When Paul tries to tell his father's friends the truth, they ignore him. When he tries to tell the classroom the truth, they call him a coward.
In the end of this stage, Paul encounters a metaphorical death. He accepts that Paul, the young man he was at the film's beginning, has died. He has been resurrected as Paul the soldier.
Return With the Elixir
During this stage, the hero returns to the ordinary world he left. In a twist, Paul does this, but his ordinary world's become the Western Front. As he tells Kat:
PAUL: Oh, I'm no good for back there anymore, Kat. None of us are. We've been in this too long.
While the return home is usually a cause for celebration, All Quiet doesn't provide such a jubilant ending. Kat's killed soon after reuniting with Paul, and Paul himself is killed soon after that.
It's a tragic—but all too typical—end to the story of many WWI soldiers.