All Quiet on the Western Front
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A war film far ahead of its time, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) tells the story of a group of German schoolboys inspired by their nationalistic teacher to sign up for battle. But boyhood fantasies of crisply uniformed soldiers fighting for the glory of the Fatherland in WWI are soon dimmed by the bitter, grotesque reality of war. Led by the charismatic Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres, in an exceptionally nuanced, moving performance), the boys begin to see their ideals of valor challenged during basic training when their stamina and spirits are tested by their former village postman turned sadistic corporal.
Like other films focused on the grunt's perspective of war, from Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Platoon (1986) to Saving Private Ryan (1998), All Quiet on the Western Front is searing in depicting the harsh reality of battle, albeit decades ahead of these contemporary war tales. Several of the incidents in this definitive, unforgettable war film are lifted verbatim for use in later pictures, such as the scene where Paul carries a wounded comrade to medics, never realizing he has died long ago, a scene repeated years later in Nunnally Johnson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). The constant hail of bombs that drives some of Paul's more fragile friends mad, the sense of expendable troops who scavenge for food and leadership and struggle with the spiritual devastation of war as German resources are depleted - all of the notions that have since become the conventions of war films were innovated in Lewis Milestone's first sound feature. Unfortunately, he never lived up to the greatness of this film though many of his other works are accomplished films in their own right such as Rain (1932) and The Front Page (1931).
The young soldiers quickly learn to depend, not on the country's leaders, but on the pragmatic advice of career soldiers like Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a salt-of-the-earth type who teaches them when to drop for cover and how to stay alive. While the war on the Western Front rages on, Paul finds himself somehow growing used to the cruelties of war and unable to tolerate the peace and complacency of civilian life. After watching friend after friend die and witnessing the countless degradations of war, he finds the real world banal and out-of-touch after visiting his mother and sister on leave.
All Quiet on the Western Front's tone of moral devastation as well as its frank treatment of the grisly reality of war make the film feel distinctly modern. In one shocking sequence that makes the film comparable to any contemporary war film, an enemy soldier is shown one moment struggling over a barbed wire fence and the next obliterated by a grenade; his two amputated hands are all that are left clinging to the fence.
With a $1.25 million budget, All Quiet on the Western Front was, for its time, an enormously expensive production - part of new studio production head Carl Laemmle, Jr.'s effort to move Universal away from family entertainments into epic films with challenging themes. Laemmle's new policy was enacted on the set of All Quiet on the Western Front, whose epic production used over 20 acres of a California ranch to stage the film's devastating battle scenes and employed more than 2,000 ex-servicemen as extras.
Director Milestone shows a talent for conveying the unrelenting nature of battle, and how maddening the seemingly endless volley of bombs and bullets from an unseen enemy can become. His was also the first sound film director to use a large mobile crane in order to expertly choreograph battle scenes and to move away from the static staginess of early sound movies. In one bleak scene Paul is trapped by overhead fire in a trench where he begins to converse with the French soldier (played by silent film comedian Raymond Griffith) whom he has mortally stabbed and who is slowly dying before his eyes. Ayres shows the emotional toll in not only watching one's comrades fall, but the spiritual agony of taking another life in a film that shows Paul's growing recognition of his commonality with the enemy soldiers.
The 20-year-old Ayres, a relative newcomer to the acting trade who had appeared previously with Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929), delivers a wrenching performance in All Quiet on the Western Front as a weary, hardened man whose once vital boyhood has been obliterated by cruel experience. The film, which made Ayres a star, was said to have deeply influence the actor's own pacifist ideals, though he served bravely in WWII as a medic.
A film that turned out to be immensely popular with American audiences (who enjoyed the film despite its sympathetic focus on German soldiers), All Quiet on the Western Front inspired bitter divisiveness in other viewers. An American military leader called the film "anti-military propaganda." It was termed "anti-German" by the Nazi government (who publicly burned copies of Erich Maria Remarque's best-selling novel) and called "pro-German" by the Poles for its sympathetic portrait of their soldiers. But All Quiet on the Western Front's cinematic achievements remain unassailable. The film and Milestone won Oscars that year and All Quiet on the Western Front remains one of the American cinema's most durable, unforgettable testaments to the cruelty of war.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Screenplay: Del Andrews, Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson, Karl Freund and Tony Gaudio
Production Design: Charles D. Hall and William R. Schmidt
Music: David Broekman
Cast: Louis Wolheim (Katczinksy), Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Raymond Griffith (Gerard Duval), George "Slim" Summerville (Tjaden), Russell Gleason (Muller), William Bakewell (Albert), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Baumer)
by Felicia Feaster