Directed by Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim (Yup… Lewis, Lew and Louis)
This is the first of the Oscar Project films that I had seen at least part of before. I started watching it on TV but didn’t pay much attention to it. I knew the end but otherwise it felt completely new.
This was the first film to win both best picture and best director and Milestone became the first director to win a 2nd Oscar. He won best director at the first Oscars for Two Arabian Knights (oddly enough a comedy about soldiers captured on the western front) when they had two director categories, one for drama and one for comedy.
Based on the German novel by Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front chronicles World War I from the German perspective and specifically the experience of a handful of young German students who become soldiers, experiencing extreme physical and mental stress during the Great War and the detachment from their civilian life.
The film begins with a disclaimer:
“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…”
Germany is enraptured by the war effort. National pride is flying high. This was fairly indicative of 1914 Europe. The glory of war was still very popular which makes this film even more poignant as it bursts that bubble. And boy does it burst the hell out of it.
The film got me thinking about what WWI was all about. Remember, this wasn’t Nazi Germany. Hitler wouldn’t come to power for almost 20 years after WWI (3 years after this film was released). This war was all about European alliances. When Serbia and Austria got nasty with each other Germany had Austria’s back which then led to Russia having Serbia’s back and then France and Britain got involved. It was crazy.
So although we think about WWII as the allies fighting back the Nazis and their evil intent, WWI was more about who was friends with who. Kinda like a playground fight.*
Service in the war effort is presented to young men as glorious, a service to your country, a way to make your father proud and win the affections of women. A classroom of young men sings the German national anthem as they march out of the room to enlist at the urging of their teacher.
The actors who play the soldiers in the film aren’t convincing as Germans. They’re clearly Americans. Nobody even attempts a German accent. But I wonder if it’s intentional to keep the audience from disconnecting from the message of the film. They play it like mooks from Brooklyn gone off to war.
The honeymoon is over quickly as their former postman arrives as their superior officer and much to their dismay goes Full Metal Jacket on them to whip them into shape. Before they know it they’re shipped to the front. This is not a slow decent into the hell of war. It’s immediate. Their illusions of the glory of war are smashed swiftly and completely.
One of their own is killed on the battlefield. They start going stir crazy as they hunker down, enduring shelling for days on end. When the shelling finally stops and they can run to the line to fight they’re actually elated.
This first battle sequence (8 minutes) is brutal. Hand to hand combat as men are killed up close with bayonets, beaten to death with the butts of rifles and shovels. Like Wings the film makes very thoughtful use of the camera to give you the large scope of the war but still maintains the individual experience of these soldiers. And like Wings the grandeur of the location sets makes all the difference. Massive battle fields are filled with soldiers. Explosion after explosion. Men and buildings alike are blown to bits.
Watching this in a theater in 1930 must have been extremely intense. Some of the imagery is graphic for a film years before any kind of ratings system existed. It was later in 1930 that the Motion Picture Production Code was first introduced. Although it wouldn’t be strictly enforced until 1934.
Like Wings, much of the film could have been presented in any order. The battle sequences and their aftermath aren’t particularly progressive. But unlike Wings it does a more complete job of focusing on the development of the soldiers gone to war.
The protagonist Paul’s character story arc is complex and thorough. His struggle to come to grips with the horrors he sees around him and the role he plays is very engaging. Although the story drags a little after Paul is wounded and spends some time in a hospital before going home on leave.
While on leave he finds himself back in his old world but with a new understanding. He sees how they see the war back home. His father and his friends. His mother and sister. He even hears his teacher addressing a new crop of students with the same urging for them to join the war effort.
Paul shares his epiphany with the class. His perspective doesn’t match his teacher’s dogma but it is the essence of the film.
“When you get in it the war isn’t the way it looks back here.”
When he returns to the front he becomes another casualty. One of the hundreds of thousands who died during WWI and the last of his company. The film ends as quickly as Paul’s life did that day on the western front. It must have left audiences in quiet awe.
I’ve seen films before that go to great effort to make political statements about one thing or another. They’re usually lazy. By “lazy” I mean when film makers portray two sides of an issue but they make everyone on the “bad” side terrible people. They’re either vicious, stupid, close minded or all of the above. Those on the “good” side, usually just the few who dare to think differently, are likeable, righteous and pure. They might not start that way but once they encounter the “bad” side they can’t stand by and let it continue.
All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t lazy. It is without a doubt an anti-war film. But it isn’t lazy and never preachy. It simply paints the picture juxtaposing the ideals of war with the stark realities.
*Dear historians: Yes, I know I’ve over simplified the essence of the Great War but I’m just trying to write a movie review, not my thesis “Imperialism vs. Militarism vs. Nationalism: Why Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria Got Shot in the Neck.” Thank you.
DVD available from Netflix.