All Quiet on the Western Front (United States, 1930)December 09, 2009
All Quiet on the Western Front is the definitive World War I motion picture, the best of a surprisingly small class of movies. Despite being overshadowed in history by the conflict of the late 1930s and early 1940s, The Great War was the subject of many films produced between the two massive conflicts, most of which were serious, epic endeavors. It's no coincidence that two of the first three Best Picture Oscars (those awarded in early 1929 and at the back end of 1930) went to war films. Although Wings is still watchable and enjoyable today, All Quiet on the Western Front has stood the test of time marvelously. The battle scenes in particular are as credible and powerful as anything committed to film before or since. Director Lewis Milestones's attention to detail is so exacting that it's impossible to tell that the images in the mud and trenches were captured in California, not near the border between Germany and France.
All Quiet on the Western Front is unambiguously anti-war. The text and subtext both make this clear. In one scene, a number of characters engage in a lively debate about who wants the war. The Kaiser, to establish his place in history? The leaders, whose egos may have been bruised? The manufacturers, who make money? Certainly not the soldiers, who fight and die. There are sequences in which offensive pushes and counter-offenses occur, hundreds of men are butchered, and neither side advances its position. The brutal, bloody, pointless nature of trench warfare is italicized during instances like this. So much is sacrificed for so little - a few yards of muddy ground purchased by the lifeblood of thousands.
The film is also about disillusionment - that the "glory" of war is nothing but a sham. The lead character, Paul Baumer (Lewis Ayres), returns home on a furlough to find himself disconnected with the life he once led and the people of his home town. His experiences on the front lines have ruined him for a "normal" life. Elder gentlemen with makeshift "war maps" patiently explain that the war will be won when Paris is taken. Young students can't wait to be old enough to join the army. Paul sums it up like this: "We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are."
All Quiet on the Western Front opens with this caption: "This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war..." This is a tale movies have told over the years, even as recently as Brothers, which shows how a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan loses his humanity in the desert.
At the time when All Quiet on the Western Front was made, the wounds of World War I were still fresh, and some of that immediacy is evident in the production. In some ways, the 1979 made-for-TV remake of All Quiet on the Western Front is technically superior, but it lacks the sense of verisimilitude imparted by the hands-on imprint of men who lived through the war. No one can capture an event as effectively as those who have firsthand experience of it. Milestone's battle scenes were uncommonly graphic for that era and have been cited by Steven Spielberg as an influence on the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. The goal is to de-mythologize war and show it for the bloody, horrific business it is. At their most basic, battles are won when one side generates more carnage than the other ("no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country - he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country"). Strategists shift pieces around on a board without fully comprehending the cost of each chess-like move. Nowadays, wars are often compared to video games. Back then, they were like board games: RISK incarnate.
When the movie begins, Paul Baumer is a fresh-faced high school graduate filled with patriotic fervor for the German "Fatherland" as a result of the speeches given by his teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). He joins the army, goes through the equivalent of basic training, and is shipped to the front to fight the French. There, all is chaos. Organization has broken down. Rank is not respected. There is little food and less sanitation. Paul becomes attached to a grizzled veteran, Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), who teaches him the ropes. In large part because of Kat's advice, Paul survives attacks by planes, night battles in the trenches, a brutal hand-to-hand struggle with a French soldier whose life ebbs away while Paul watches, and other situations. He watches his hated former drill master, Himmelstoss (John Wray), turn into a coward on the battlefield. He huddles in a bunker in the trenches while enemy shelling threatens to tear it apart. He fights with rats for morsels of stale bread. And he watches as, one by one, his friends die. Finally, when an injury allows him to return home for a brief time, he cuts short the furlough to go back to the trenches - the only place he now considers to be "home."
All Quiet on the Western Front was produced by the legendary Carl Laemmle Jr., who had been active in Hollywood since 1926. At the time of All Quiet on the Western Front, Laemmle's "signature" films were ahead of him: Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, The Mummy in 1932, The Invisible Man in 1933, and The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Laemmle was so moved by Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel that, upon reading it, he personally traveled to Germany to secure the film rights. He also attempted to persuade Remarque to play the lead - an opportunity the author refused, arguing that he was not an actor.
This was the first talkie directed by Lewis Milestone, who also created a parallel silent version for theaters that did not yet have full sound systems installed. Milestone intended for All Quiet on the Western Front to have a complete absence of music, but in many cases theaters showing the silent interpretation added their own score - something that infuriated the director, who felt music robbed the production of an aspect of its power. As a filmmaker, Milestone had a long and profitable career in Hollywood. It began in 1918 and concluded in 1962. His final movie was the Marlon Brando adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty. (He also directed the original Oceans 11.) He won directing Oscars in consecutive years - in 1929 for Two Arabian Nights (at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony, the Best Director category was split in two: Comedy and Drama) and in 1930 for All Quiet on the Western Front. He was nominated (but did not win) for a third and final time in 1931 for The Front Page.
Although All Quiet on the Western Front is not an actors' picture, it features two solid performances: a workmanlike turn by Lewis Ayres in the lead and a slightly more showy portrayal by Louis Wolheim. Ayres, who began acting in the cinema before eventually transitioning to television, was at the beginning of his career in 1930. He would eventually be nominated for an Oscar for the prime role in 1948's Johnny Belinda (he did not win). Wolheim, a long time character actor in silent films, made All Quiet on the Western Front at the end of his career. He had only four screen credits after this one and died in 1931 at the age of 50.
The fact that All Quiet on the Western Front stands up so well today, nearly eight decades after it was made, is a testimony to those involved. The acting is surprisingly low-key for an era in which "bigger than life" was often considered better. Milestone directed with the hand of a perfectionist, re-creating the trenches of Western Europe with an authenticity that disarmed soldiers who had fought in World War I (and using many veterans as technical advisors and extras). The battle scenes are top-notch and the script keeps the viewer involved for a 133 minute period that passes extraordinarily quickly. Some of the early Oscar winners (The Broadway Melody and Cimarron come to mind) were less than worthy of their Best Picture designations. All Quiet on the Western Front does the award proud.
All Quiet on the Western Front (United States, 1930)
Cast: Lewis Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy
Screenplay: George Abbott, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
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