Friday, November 29, 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone                               Writers: George Abbott & Maxwell Anderson
Music: Heinz Roemheld                                 Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Ben Alexander and Slim Summerville

While Universal produced mainly small, inexpensive pictures during the Laemmle era, they did produce a few big-budget films every year. One of those was Lewis Milestone’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which brought Universal much needed publicity and artistic cache by winning the Academy Award for best picture that year. Of course the film was based on the very successful anti-war novel from German writer Erich Maria Remarque, about several high school students who were inspired by their teacher to enlist and fight in the war for the Fatherland. What happens to the boys is a swift transformation from young innocents to men who have seen death close up and can’t imagine going home to a pedestrian life. They also realize they were duped by their teacher into believing in the glory of war and dying on the battlefield.

The film begins on the eve of World War One, with soldiers marching through the town, the people celebrating and ecstatic over the coming conflict. In the schoolhouse the students can see the soldiers pass, and at the front of the room is their professor, telling them about their duty to their country and their responsibility to defend it. In a flurry of patriotism they all enlist, and go off to be trained. There they meet Himmelstoss, a postman for whom they have no respect, but he is their drill sergeant and he takes great pleasure in sadistically training them. Before they leave for the front, however, they exact their own punishment. Once at the line they meet their guardian angel, “Kat” Katczinski, an older soldier who teaches them what they need to know to survive. What he can’t do, however, is show them how to heal their emotional wounds. Death, destruction, the end of all they have known, made especially poignant upon returning home on leave, makes them want to stay at the front where things seem more “real.”

One can sense the artistic merits of the film immediately. Milestone uses some very interesting camera angles, especially those placed on the ground, and he also makes wonderful use of tracking shots, most notably in the trench warfare scenes. What is quite remarkable, however, are the framing devices he comes up with. The celebration of German soldiers going off to war can be seen outside through the windows of the schoolroom. When the students go off to the training academy the inside is only visible through the front arch. And when the young men are coming and going from their first billet, the rain outside is seen only through the doorway. It’s a very successful visual leitmotif that works beautifully in the context of the film. The battle scenes are uniformly excellent as well. The first prolonged battle, in which the French attack the German positions is extremely well done. The shots of the German machine guns mowing down the French troops wouldn’t really be replicated with the same emotion until Saving Private Ryan.

Lew Ayres plays the protagonist of the piece, Paul Baumer, from whose point of the view the story is told. He does a nice job at conveying the innocence of the boys going off to war, and his speech in the classroom when he goes back to his old school is done with exactly the right amount of reluctance and hesitancy. The other star of the piece is Louis Wolheim as Kat, with that distinctive Roman nose and his compassion for the boys he is certainly the sympathetic center of the piece. Slim Summerville is the other distinctive character, a sad sack who would seem tailor made to be the butt of the men’s jokes and yet somehow always speaks the truth and is respected for it. The film was a terrific success and still holds up well today. Not only did the film win the best picture Oscar, but Milestone won for his direction. All Quiet on the Western Front remains a classic war film and a classic epic of the early sound era.

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