Word of warning, Shmoopers. If you want to think of war as awesome and heroic, go watch Star Wars. If you want to see war as a mud-filled hellscape, watch All Quiet on the Western Front.
Don't say we didn't warn you.
The film opens with soldiers marching near a classroom where Paul Bäumer and his friends listen to their lecture. Rather than teach them math or French or other school subjects, their teacher, Kantorek, discusses how glorious the war will be for the fatherland and the soldiers who fight in it.
With visions of Call of Duty dancing in their heads, Paul and his friends enlist.
The young men soon learn that being all you can be means…being a soldier. That's it. The happy-go-lucky postman-turned-sadistic drill sergeant Himmelstoss takes them through basic training, and their lives become an endless series of marching drills and mud crawls.
Paul and his friends are then dispatched to the Western Front, where they join the 2nd Company and meet its leader, Kat (aka Stanislaus Katczinsky), an old war dog with a knack for survival. That night, the company is sent to lay barbed wire. A bombardment strikes, and Behm's blinded by shrapnel. In a panic, he runs into enemy fire and is killed.
The company is sent to the front lines where the enemy bombards them for a week solid. The hunger and constant shelling whittle down their nerves. Unable to stand the stress, Kemmerick dashes from the dugout and is hit in the stomach by shrapnel. When the bombardment stops, Paul and his friends experience the carnage of their first offensive.
After being relieved from the Front, the company receives some R&R. After a soldier's feast of beans and bread, they chill and discuss the causes of the war. They also discuss alternatives to the war, and Kat has an idea that sounds like a prototype for a political Thunderdome.
Paul and his friends visit Kemmerick at the field hospital. They try to convince him to regain his strength so he can return home, but secretly they all know he's going to die. Paul stays behind and witnesses Kemmerick's death. It's a downer, to say the least.
One day, Himmelstoss's ordered to the front lines to join the 2nd Company in an offensive. He goes over the top and instantly cowers in a shell hole. Paul berates him for being a coward, but Himmelstoss isn't spurned into action until a superior officer orders him to move. Paul watches a man he's grown to hate bravely charge forward.
Paul's injured and finds cover in a shell hole when the counterattack comes. When a French soldier jumps into the same crater, Paul quickly stabs him. Suppressed by enemy fire, Paul spends the night with the dying Frenchman. Paul tries to save his life, realizing they have no reason to fight other than the war, but the French soldier dies an excruciatingly slow death.
Paul breaks down, crying and begging for the man's forgiveness. (The downers in this film just keep on coming.)
Relieved of duty, Paul, Albert, Leer, and Tjaden enjoy a bath in the river. They spot three French women on the other side and entice them with promises of food. (Yum?) Seeing as there are only three women, Albert, Paul, and Leer convince Kat to get Tjaden totally smashed while they sneak across the river. The three spend the night with the women.
Returning to the front, Paul and Albert are injured by shellfire. They're sent to a Catholic hospital. Paul recovers from his injures, but Albert's leg is amputated. Paul leaves the hospital as his friend slips into a suicidal depression.
Paul is given leave and returns home. His father and his friends take the returning hero for a drink and reveal to him their strategies to win the war and make the final push to Paris. Paul tries to tell them the reality of the situation, but they refuse to listen to him. After all, their strategy involves a map and everything—it's fancy-pants.
Walking the streets, Paul hears Kantorek giving the same bombastic speech to another class of young men. He confesses to them that soldiers don't find glory in war, only death. The students call him a coward.
Angered by everyone's ignorance, Paul returns to the 2nd Company. He finds Kat and confesses he has changed too much to live back home. An enemy airplane drops bombs, and Kat is hit in the shin. Paul carries him to the field hospital but Kat is already dead.
Back at the front lines, a despondent Paul sees a butterfly just outside the trench. He reaches for it and exposes himself to a French sniper. Just as his hand is about to reach the butterfly, a shot rings out. Paul's hand jerks and lies gently in the mud. The final shot shows Paul and his friends marching to the Front for the first time, the image superimposed over a cemetery.