- Production Company: Universal
- Year Released: 1930
- Directed by: Lewis Milestone
- Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wilhelm, John Wray
- Expect to Pay: $10-20
This is it. This is the first time since starting this whole project that a film made me cry. Up until now, I would say that the films I’ve reviewed either “were good despite flaws” or “had their moments.” I could recommend that people watch them, but there would have to be a few asterisks attached. But not this time. 1930’s adaptation of the Erich Marie Remarque novel All Quiet on the Western Front is, unequivocally, a triumph. This is the first film I’ve examined thus far that I can safely call “great.” It transcends the period that it was made in to become a timeless warning of the dangers of war, as well as a meditation on the loss of innocence and how an entire generation was damned.
The film opens cheerfully enough in 1914, with German soldiers marching off to war, including the town’s postmaster Himmelstoß (John Wray). While the parades and cheers are happening, the schoolmaster (Arnold Lucy) gives a fiery speech about duty and honor and “saving the Fatherland.” This speech enraptures the whole class, who all immediately go off to enlist, including one Paul Bäumer. After they enlist, they are trained into the dirt by Himmelstoß, who is a Sargent in the National Reserves. After boot camp, they immediately go to the front, where they befriend Stanislaus Katczinksy (or “Kat”). Kat is known as the guy that can find food where no others can, and he shows Paul and the rest of the boys the ropes of frontline fighting. After one of Paul’s friends is shot, he quickly learns that war is not a game, and that dying for one’s country has no glory at all.
Before the movie plays, there is a preface shown. This preface is more or less the same as the source novel. It reads, “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.”
And that’s exactly what it does. We watch Paul, a rugged, bright-eyed innocent, try to cope as everything he thought he knew gets destroyed. While we see his friends die and the psychological effects this has on Paul, the film, much like its source material, goes one step further by showing what might wait for Paul once the war’s over. After he gets injured, he gets a furlough, where he’s allowed to return home. While he’s there, the town and the people he left behind remain ignorant to the true horrors of the front, wanting “the best for [their] soldiers” but still wanting them to “push on to Paris.” His mother still treats him as if he were a child, and his professor still claims to know more about duty than Paul. Even if he did come home alive (sorry to spoil a movie that is almost 90 years old at the time of this writing), he would likely not be able to adjust well into civilian society. His innocence is shattered, and he’s internally broken. This makes Paul and his struggles representative of an entire generation who spent their lives after the war trying to find a purpose in a world that had no use for them.
These emotions are so evident thanks the masterful performance of Lew Ayres. His take on Paul makes him a sympathetic everyman, one who is perfectly foiled by the antics of Louis Wilhelm as Kat. Their performances made me care about this group of soldiers and whether or not that they would survive all of the battles they got into. Considering that this was just Ayres’ second film, the fact that it is one of his best performances is even more impressive.
The combat scenes in this film are grueling, repetitive and gruesome. Basically, it’s as close to the real thing as anyone could possibly want. I watched this movie with headphones on, and the sound was incredible. For once, a lack of music works in a film’s favor. There’s no artificiality about these combat scenes. There’s nothing to distract you from the carnage onscreen and no musical cues to give you any false emotions about trench warfare. This realism is further heightened by the use of over 1,000 World War I veterans, from both sides, as extras.
These battle scenes make the scenes in Wings from just a few years back look like a Saturday morning cartoon. Much like the combat of that film, there’s an ebb and flow to the battles, but it put me in trance-like state. Eventually, the film had shifted perspectives and the French were now the ones attacking. I had to consciously tell myself this. And that is one of the movie’s greatest strengths. By blending and blurring the combat in such a way, the cinematography serves one of the film’s major themes: that there are no heroes and villains in war, merely different perspectives. This theme is further driven home when Paul stabs a Frenchman and, due to heavy gunfire, has to spend all night with him as he dies a slow, choking death. Paul’s speech about how he could be his brother and that he’d do anything if the dead Frenchman would just forgive him had me in tears, and I am not ashamed to admit it. It is little wonder that the director, Lewis Milestone, won the Oscar that year for Best Director, making All Quiet on the Western Front the first Best Picture winner to also win Best Director.
If I had to make a complaint, it would be some stuff that was left on the cutting room floor. There is a subplot in the novel about a pair of boots that gets passed around the unit when one soldier dies. While this is present to a certain extent in the film, I wish that more could have been done with it. But that is one minor nitpick in an almost flawless tapestry of film history.
I would be remiss to conclude without mentioning this film’s ending, which almost didn’t happen. Milestone was not happy with the ending, even though it followed the original novel. His friend, cinematographer Karl Freund, said that the ending should be “’as simple as a butterfly (Arnold 18)’”. Milestone then knew what he had to do. Due to Ayres being busy with another film, Milestone supplied his own hand that features in the tragic conclusion. The film ends with the soldiers marching into oblivion with no sound. A somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion until one realizes that war has no satisfactory conclusion if you never see the end of it.
This film, with its bombastic combat and well-drawn characters, would set the standard for pretty much every other war epic to come, from Full Metal Jacket to Glory to Saving Private Ryan. If you have ignored my recommendations so far, please do not miss this film. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you do.
After the tragedy of the First World War, the Academy chose the rare western as its next winner. So next time, we’ll be taking a look at the winner for 1931, Cimarron. see you then.
Arnold, Jeremy. Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter. Running Press, 2016.