Though it takes place nearly 90 years ago and offers an enemy's perspective on the War To End All Wars, Judge Bill Gibron says there is a very contemporary message to this 1930 Oscar-winning drama.
Our reviews of All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray) Digibook (published February 12th, 2012) and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
There is no honor in dying for one's country…only death.
Early Hollywood has a shaky reputation when it comes to handling the subject of war. Unlike the current post-modern mindset that wants to make sure all combat is given the factual "you are there" experience—along with a healthy dose of pure peacenik punch—initial studio efforts had to balance the needs of the nation vs. the wants of the artist. Indeed, very little critical cinema was created during the medium's first 50 years, the notion that people didn't want to be confronted with the harsh realities of the world as they played into the art form's sense of entertainment and escape. When something did come along that proffered the truth with a little of that well-meaning Tinseltown magic, it was guaranteed to stir up a celluloid storm. Thus it was with All Quiet on the Western Front. A fictionalized memoir of one soldier's time in the German Army during World War I, the book was notorious for exposing combat as a decidedly unglamorous pursuit. It also reinforced the idea that most conflicts are not between country and country, or citizenry and citizenry, but leaders vs. leaders, or even worse, arcane policy against stubborn sovereignty. No one expected Hollywood to present a definitive version of the controversial book, but in 1930, Lewis Milestone delivered his unapologetic take on the material. One of the greatest antiwar films ever made, Front became a Best Picture winner, delivering another Oscar to Milestone as well. More than 76 years later, the movie remains a marvel of technical and creative accomplishment.
Facts of the Case
War has broken out in Europe, with the main hostilities concentrated between Germany and France. When an influential professor remarks that his students should quit their studies and head off to battle, many of the local boys, including Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayers, The Secret of Dr. Kildare), immediately enlist. They soon find themselves shipped off to the Western Front, where the fighting is most severe. There Paul meets up with the gruff but sincere Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim, The Silver Horde) and the two become fast friends. The older man has seen a lot of action, and he warns Paul to be prepared for the horrors of combat. Sure enough, his first night in the field, the new recruits are caught in the middle of a bombardment and, from then on, they all experience fear, pain, and the randomness of death. Many of Paul's friends are killed or wounded and, as the conflict rages on, our hero starts to carry the burden of life in the armed service. The food, when there is any, is lousy. Days and nights can be filled with the endless exploding of artillery fire and, while fleeing for your life and hiding in a foxhole, you too may be forced to kill, up close and without consciousness. The worst part, however, is the incessant fear. It eats away at a soldier's insides, turning them hollow and empty. Before long, they no longer care about it being All Quiet on the Western Front. They just want the bloodshed to end.
Written from a very unique perspective (that of a German soldier during World War I) and famous for being one of the first honest depictions of war in all its facets, All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel by veteran Erich Maria Remarque, seems unlikely early Tinseltown material. True, when sound took over from silents, there was a minor renaissance in subject matter throughout the industry, the newfound technology opening up avenues of narrative that otherwise had been avoided. In theory, a war picture would seem perfect for the new medium, the novel sound of gunfire and bombs making the experience much more compelling for the audience. But Front featured a story told from the enemy's perspective, and also argued against the nobility of sacrifice for king and country. Such a concept would have chaffed a 1930s audience, deep in the throngs of a horrible Depression and unwilling to subvert its sense of patriotism for the personal pain and disillusionment of a past European foe. Yet filmmaker Lewis Milestone knew that, if he presented the story just right, and made certain sensible changes, the message would resonate beyond the understandable xenophobia.
His first inspired decision was to cast only American actors. He wanted no accents, no Teutonic twangs to remind the viewer of the nationalistic perspective being discussed. With their California cadence and perfectly clipped English, the cast more or less erased all notions of a Bavarian backdrop. Secondly, he then removed most mentions of Germany, France, and the main theater of the WWI conflict. True, nearly all in his audience would have been well aware of the war (it had ended just over a decade before), but by making all conversations vague and ambiguous, with only minor moments ("March to Paris," "Serve the Fatherland") reminding viewers of the Berlin basis for the tale, a more universal approach could be taken. Finally, Milestone milked the novel's main sentiments—that war is monotony, Hell, unnecessary, evil, indefensible, etc.—and created as many scenes as he could to drive that theme home. Indeed, there will be moments, sometimes within a major battle sequence, where the director will briefly turn down the mortar fire and let one of his actors deliver a meaningful monologue about uncaring leaders, pointless personal sacrifice, and, most importantly, the notion that no one need die for a cause that is poorly defined, badly managed, and lacking in the fundamental morality that makes up human existence.
From this standpoint alone, Front can seem quite haughty and self-important. When a film focuses so intently on sending a message that it barely deviates from its course of antiwar propaganda, there's a real threat that the end result will be barely tolerable, let alone watchable. But in one of the rare cases of a movie that both talks the talk and then marches the momentous march, Front delivers some devastating battle recreations along with its preaching. Indeed, moviegoers were treated to terrifying material, utilizing violence, brutality, and gore that was almost unheard of in early 20th Century cinema. The MPAA and the Production (or Hays) Code had been adopted by 1930, but it was not strictly enforced until 1934. This allowed Milestone the opportunity to really amplify the amount of onscreen horror. Indeed, there are some shots that, even three-quarters of a century later, still play as repugnant and reprehensible. But beyond the obvious shock value, Milestone also came up with an ingenious conceit for his narrative. Like war itself, the movie delivered long, continuous sequences in which all we experience are the sounds of battle—the never-ending noise, the constant threat of bombs or gunfire, the unearthly cries of wounded and/or dying men. Then, just when we think we can tolerate no more, Milestone continues the barrage, only to quickly follow it with an extended scene of deathly quiet. It makes for a fascinating entertainment experience.
In its philosophy and style alone, All Quiet on the Western Front is a very modern movie. The battle sequences and roller-coaster style of action are highly reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. What most film fans will find difficult, especially after decades of controlled Method acting, is the outrageously dated performance style of many in the cast. It is safe to say that, without Lew Ayers and his simple, if sometimes sappy, turn as Paul and Louis Wolheim and his grizzled greatness as Kat Katczinsky, some of this movie would be static and somewhat silly. There is a pair of sequences, both taking place in hospitals, oddly enough, where the silent film style of acting—all arch eyebrows, exaggerated gestures, and overblown melodrama—is in full effect. Equally obvious are Kat's companions, a pair of perpetual freeloaders who seem to be present for a kind of clipped comic relief. While many in the cast remain sullen and subtle in their work, Milestone does have a problem modulating his mood. This is apparent when Paul, visiting a dying friend, suddenly breaks out in a weird ersatz prayer. Still, for their time, and their attempted authenticity and realism, the performances in All Quiet on the Western Front depict a recognizable version of life in service of a senseless purpose. Add in Milestone's absolutely brilliant direction (his battle scenes alone warrant the awarding of that Oscar) and you've got the pieces for a cinematic classic.
What finally brings these ephemeral elements together is the strong antiwar theme. Although Remarque could play things up more substantively in his novel (where the only limits are the imagination and the mind's eye), Milestone really drives his sentiments home on the big screen with a constant sense of chaos, lawlessness, and pointlessness. We never learn of missions or goals, never understand what the soldiers are attempting when they fight. We are tossed directly into the melee with them, hoping to hear hints of the objective before another bomb bursts just beyond our rifle's line of sight. As bodies pile up and rounds of ammunition are spent, as the constant clamor deafens us to the shrieks of our fallen comrades, and as we keep waiting for that inevitable sting of the shrapnel or bullet with our name on it, we still try to figure out why we are doing this. During one of the film's best sequences, Paul returns home on leave to a town caught up in the jingoism of war. His parents are proud, but father wants the army to push on toward Paris. The professor that inspired his recruitment is still delivering the same old speech to an even younger class of proscription candidates. When Paul tries to tell the truth about combat, no one wants to hear. They don't want their visions of valor and notions of national pride mucked up by the facts. They want the romanticized version of battle, where every cause is just, every action warranted, and every man's a hero.
Of course, that's not even close to the truth, but then again, that's the point of All Quiet on the Western Front. The contradiction between what people think war serves, and the reality of actually standing in the place of said ideal, the juxtaposition of bravery vs. brutality, victory within a vacuous pretense, turns what could have been a WWI curio into a timeless testament to the need for peace. Though the closest we come to that word is a brief mention of armistice, the main conclusion of Milestone's magnificent film is that conflict is easier to perpetrate than maintaining calm between countries. All you need is a few good slogans, a perception of threat to your national security/honor/philosophy/objectives, and a pool of young people ready, willing, and able to die to ward off said danger, and you've got yourself an international incident. Now measure that against the hundreds of complementary and conflicting issues that are required to maintain peace, from diplomacy and détente to the avoidance of reactionary responses and the installation of intelligent leadership. There are just too many variables that can suddenly slip out of place to ruin a long and everlasting sovereign serenity. Indeed, one of the many meaningful concepts All Quiet on the Western Front creates is that war, by its very nature, is inevitable. The real courage is found in arguing against such an unavoidable evil.
In one of the most stunning restorations in film history, this latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front looks magnificent. Helmed by the National Film Archive and the Library of Congress, this 1.33:1 full-screen monochrome masterpiece appears remarkably vibrant and newly minted. The contrast between light and dark is dynamic, and the lack of age and/or storage defects is significant. Anyone who has seen this film in either a washed-out television broadcast or a substandard VHS print needs to see what Universal has done here. The transfer is just terrific. In addition, the Dolby Digital Mono mix, while still tinny and flat like most pre-stereo soundtracks, lacks much of the hiss and shrillness that ruins many early motion pictures. Indeed, even as bombs whistle and explode in a constant barrage of numbing noise, there is barely a hint of distortion or overmodulation. As for the added content, Universal provides a couple of interesting artifacts, but can't truly be complimented, because of the lack of overall content. Robert Osborne does his standard TCM historian schtick, while the trailer is the classic old-fashioned studio hard sell. What we really need is context, a chance to see how All Quiet on the Western Front was received at the time, plus a commentary or scholarly breakdown of the film's many themes and present-day importance. Without these added features, this DVD delivers startling tech specs, but little else of substantive value.
It would be easy to make some kind of crass comment here, to tie this 76-year-old masterwork to the current war in Iraq and say something along the lines of "this should be compulsory viewing for every citizen." Instead, it's much easier to simply recognize All Quiet on the Western Front's main message—that no matter how you dress it up, in dire consequences, imminent threat, or long-term legitimizing, armed conflict should never be viewed as a sensible solution. While the goals may seem lofty and idealized from a distance, down on the battlefield, the loss of life and the toll of human suffering more or less eliminates the pureness of the purpose. Sure, there are times when fighting is the only solution—say, when a determined dictator with a like-minded collection of jackbooted soldiers decides that his National Socialist ideal would best be spread to all nations of the world—but it should remain the position of last resort, not the first stance taken. To simplify all combat into war and peace is to undermine the inherent worth of each concept. But as All Quiet on the Western Front points out, it's easier to find the pawns for one than to make the case for the other. That is why it remains an important, endemic film.
Not guilty. Definitely deserving its Best Picture nod, All Quiet on the Western Front remains a powerful motion-picture talking point. Case dismissed.
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