Judge Roman Martel feels this movie confirms that trench warfare was the very definition of horror beyond imagination.
"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."
I always assumed American movies about the horrors of war were only made starting with the Vietnam era. Prior to that, most war films were flag waving patriotic action adventure sagas. They got the blood pumping, the patriotism soaring and made you feel good that the bad guys got what they deserved in the end. And why not? Prior to the 1970s most war films were about World War II, a conflict that had very clear lines drawn between "good guys" and "bad guys."
So, I was very surprised to hear the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front was filled with a grim reality—showing that warfare can be less than honorable. It's not a tale of heroes besting a vicious enemy. It's about men staring death in the face and finding no good reason to do what they have to. It gets to the very essence of the combat experience in World War I and the horrors that entails.
Based on a German novel by Erich Maria Remarque published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front follows the military career of Paul (Lew Ayres, Johnny Belinda), a young man who listened to his high school teacher deliver an inspiring speech, encouraging the boys to fight for the Fatherland and win glory for the whole country. Paul and his peers are filled with nationalistic pride and naive optimism. They'll join up, trounce the French and head home with medals glistening on their uniforms and women swarming them.
But basic training shows them the first bit of tarnish on that brilliant daydream. The drill sergeant is a vindictive jerk who uses every opportunity to torment the boys. When they finally reach the Western front, they find not a glorious battlefield filled with opportunities for honor and glory, but a muddy hell hole, filled with famine, disease and death. Night after night they endure a constant barrage of shells, and when it goes still, they face the unmatched agony of trench warfare. Men and horses are mown down by machine gun fire. Hundreds die as they battle for trenches dug only a few yards apart. And when the chaos ends, Paul ends up just where he started, in the same blood filled trench.
The only saving grace is the rugged veteran Kat (Louis Wolheim, Two Arabian Knights) who goes out of his way to get the new recruits a fighting chance. As the war drags on Paul watches his friends die meaningless deaths, feels his soul ebbing away from the contestant nightmares around him. He begins to wonder if the war will ever end, and even if it does, what kind of life can he hope for?
No this isn't the feel good movie of 1930. But it's not as relentlessly grim as it could be either. Ayres brings a relatable quality to Paul, we like the kid even as we watch him become more and more disillusioned. The constant struggle that Paul endures clearly shows in Ayres performance. The valiant youth we see at the beginning is a million miles away from cold eyed man staring out of the trenches at the end.
Also worth noting is a top notch performance by Wolheim. He's a good natured mug, whose tough exterior hides a heart of gold. We like him almost immediately, even as he steals a whole pig! But he's doing it to feed his men who are starving at the front. He's practical, tells it as he sees it, and provides a great mixture of humor and wisdom in the film.
Now don't get me wrong, the performances here are par the course for the early '30s. There's plenty of over the top, silent style acting on display, but you get a good mix of naturalistic performances as well. It can create a bit of a surreal experience at times, but when it comes down to it, I connected with the characters and the film delivered the punch it did because of that.
The other item worth mentioning is the production value. This was a big budget film for Universal, and it shows. The sets have depth with tons of extras marching down the streets, or full size horses and carriages wandering past a destroyed farmhouse the boys are squatting in. But most amazing were the battle scenes. Filmed with a relentless energy that spreads from the camerawork to the editing—these are visceral nightmares. It is easy to see that Spielberg was influenced by the work of director Lewis Milestone (Mutiny on the Bounty) in this film when he tackled the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan. I was also reminded how violent and bloody a film could be pre-Hays Code.
Universal has delivered a appealing release of All Quiet on the Western Front as part of their 100th Anniversary Collector's Series. What you see here is the digitally remastered and fully restored version of the film, using the original film elements. The restoration is impressive making the film look amazing. There are a few moments where it does show its age, but the print is very clean and detailed. To see it in 1080p on Blu-ray is a real treat. The soundtrack was also cleaned up quite a bit, removing hiss and improving overall clarity. There were still a few moments where the dialogue was fairly quiet, but it sounds like it may have been a problem with the microphones used at the time.
In addition you also get the silent movie edit of the film. This version was released the same year for theaters that hadn't converted over to sound. It runs a little bit longer because of title cards used instead of dialogue, and provides a different view of the movie. Along for the ride is Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movie fame providing an introduction for the film/ (And still trapped in that little room. Will he never escape?) You also get two featurettes. One covers Universal's restoration project covering many of their most famous films. Some discussion is included on All Quiet on the Western Front but you get to see reservation elements for other films like Dracula and Jaws. There is also a featurette that talks about Universal's Academy Award winning films.
The last Digibook I reviewed was the nearly useless release of The Usual Suspects. This is a huge improvement. Yes it contains still images from the film, but you also get an essay by Leonard Maltin, biographies of the cast and crew, vintage poster art and lobby cards, as well as studio memos providing interesting details about the making of the film. I'm still puzzled as to why this material wasn't included on the actual Blu-ray disc. You also get a standard def copy of the film.
All Quiet on the Western Front is often referred to as a film that manages to impress and affect, when many of its contemporaries feel dated and overblown. This is easy to recommend to anyone who is looking for a powerful war drama and an excellent example of filmmaking from this period in American cinema. This collector's edition is the best way to add it to your library.
Not guilty in the least.
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