All Quiet on the Western Front: The Great War

When it comes to war, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a love affair with films about it. I’ve written before about the number of war movies that have caught the Academy’s eye. 

 

For me, at least, the thought of war in the last century lies first with World War II. The war was so unbelievably consequential in shaping our world. Recency bias plays a part, too, in forgetting an equally important and just as damaging conflict in World War I. In fact, we really wouldn’t have World War II without World War I. Yet the conflict that obliterated western Europe is still overshadowed. There was an entire generation of people whose lives were changed forever by that war. 

 

When Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front hit the big screen in 1930, the world was on the edge of the cataclysmic Great Depression, and Germany’s Weimar Republic was floundering under the weight of the Treaty of Versailles. In less than a decade from the film’s release, the world would be at war again. Starring Lew Ayres, the film depicts Germany’s 2nd Company as they fight on the frontlines of the war. Based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, the film is not only the first talkie war movie to win Best Picture, but also the first movie to win both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Moreover, the film brings to life a savage war and is underscored with a powerful anti-war message that had been both revered and hated in its time. 

 

Now, for the rest of the film. 

 

Plot

All Quiet on the Western Front begins in Germany with troops parading through the streets of a village on their way to the front. The scene, which brilliantly done in a single shot, then moves to the school house where a teacher passionately inspires his students, sweeping them up in a war fever. In this class is young Paul (Lew Ayres) who joins the Army after his teacher’s speech, disappointing his mother but making his father proud. 

 

After enduring a punishing training period, Paul and his 2nd Company head to the front. There, the once bright-eyed young men filled with dreams of glory, suddenly learn of the true nature of the war at the front: it’s a brutal stalemate with a German Army that is critically undersupplied. 

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In battle after battle that follows, Paul loses one friend after another and he grows colder and more and more cynical as the war wears on. He sees the men in his unit devolve into an uncivilized pack of wolves only looking out for themselves. 

 

Paul becomes truly disillusioned about the war when he returns home on leave, though. He’s called a coward and unpatriotic when he tries to tell people about the horrors of the war. After returning to the front, Paul is killed by a German sniper while reaching for a butterfly and the movie cuts to black. 

 

For about the first half of the movie, Paul doesn’t emerge as the main character, but rather the film is about the war and the 2nd Company. This sets the base for Paul as a character, who fills the void for a sympathetic character as the film goes on. We already know his life and experiences. 

 

While watching this film, it was interesting to see how this movie influenced future war movies. The examples of this that are The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket. The training sequence most likely inspired Stanley Kubrick in the latter, whereas the long-term effects of war shaped the former. 1. 

 

Writing

George Abbott and Maxwell Anderson both adapted the screenplay for the screen and the pair were nominated for an Academy Award for this film. All Quiet on the Western Front is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name. Remarque himself was a former German soldier. 

 

I’ve written a number of times about the funny one-liners and zingers on display in films from the 1930s and 1940s. These are prevalent in this film as well. However, the one-liners skew the opposite direction, and most of the lines are devastatingly sad. 

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This speaks to the general nature of the film, too. It’s no surprise that an anti-war movie would be so cynical, and this one certainly is. Poul’s disconnect, his loss of youth and innocence is characterized by two lines, the first of which being, “…our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death.” The other is “We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That’s all.” 1. 

 

Sound

All Quiet on the Western Front is truly a unique auditory experience, especially for films of that era. As it’s just the second talkie to win Best Picture, it’s likely that the film pushed the boundaries of what was possible with sound at the time. Bullets constantly whizz by and planes never cease to torment the soldiers on the gourd. The battle scenes rely on only the sounds of chaos, rather than some grand and dark score. 

 

The most effective use of sound in this file is also when there is the least of it. When Paul is gunned down while reaching for a butterfly, the shot cutes to silent black screen for several seconds to let it sink in. And his death hits us like a train, souring the taste in your mouth and shredding your soul. 1. 

 

Set Design

Taking place in Western Europe, this film was shot almost exclusively in Southern California. I didn’t even know this until I looked it up online and I was still surprised. Obviously this is a compliment to the set building for this film. 

 

Second, there is a lot going on in the film and the costuming and makeup departments were on their game. So many extras were used, and all those soldiers need uniforms on their backs and blood in their guts. 1. 

 

Cinematography

Arthur Edeson was the director of photography for All Quiet on the Western Front, and his camera work is truly something to behold. 

Using both long and short shots, the movie sets its own pace in regards to shot selection. 

 

On one hand, the film’s opening shot is brilliance on film. Edeson uses one fluid camera movement to go to various parts of troop parade before finishing in the school room. The film is full of many long shots. This shot, however, sticks out in my memory. 

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At the other end of the specturm are how the film depicts battles. Hand-to-hand combat is confusion and chaos and the battles reflect that with very quick cuts, jumping back and forth from one fight to another. I’d expect something like this out of a modern film too. 1. 

 

Acting

All Quiet on the Western Frontis, in general, a movie more about war itself than about individual characters. That doesn’t mean there are bad performances. 

 

Lew Ayers performance as Paul stands out in the film. Paul is full of ambition and dreams of becomeing a hero for the Fatherland during the war. But his dreams are blown to bits when he is actually in the war. He becomes much more comfortable in the heat of combat than in civilian life, a normal affliction of men returning from combat. 

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Paul’s tragedy in his life is a microcosm of the greater tragedy of war. Even though Paul is young, his youth is painfylly ripped from him. His life of potential is ended because of political differences between the Allies and the Central Powers. Paul was always going to die in the war, whether he survived it or not. 1. 

 

Directing

Lewis Milestone won Best Director for this film, the first movie to win both Best Picture and Best Director. These two statuettes were the only two awards given to All Quiet on the Western Front at the 3rd Academy Awards. 

 

For as long as there have been people, wars have existed. Often, war is glamorized  by those are both witnesses to and participants in the conflict. Dying on the battlefield with a knife between your teeth, draped in glory is the typical idea of a war hero. 

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When it comes to actual war, though, the topic is astoundingly complex. Political discourse, supply chain management, troop training and drilling, public opinion, and financial obligations are just a few of the major issues that war brings with it on the surface. This doesn’t include morale, both on the front and at home, nor the mental impacts of combat on the human brain. 

 

Milestone begins All Quiet on the Western Front by stating bluntly that, “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.” It’s not about heroism but rather a savage look at a devastating international conflict, and how war affects all those who are drawn into it, how it changes men, and, as the film suggests, how pointless it all is. 

 

While watching this film, I remembered watching Peter Jackson’s incredible documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in which World War I footage was meticulously colorized and digitized. That movie held nothing back and didn’t shield the viewer from horror and devastation of the war. All Quiet on the Western Front is much the same. The movie was released prior to the regulation of cinema through the Hays Production Code. So, the film is unrelenting in its brutality and that makes it a much better piece. This wasn’t a film I expected could have been made in 1930. During the Depression, at least the films on this list so far, the movies were far more upbeat and offered as a distraction. 

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Also while watching the film, I was struck by the idea of the war movie. While this is by no means the first war movie, it’s likely the first one to show war for what it is and to provide a commentary on war itself. I have to remind myself that for most people who viewed the film, World War I was their war, the war that changed their lives. All Quiet on the Western Front helped those audiences deal with that conflict and its aftermath in the same way that other movies in have helped subsequent generations deal with theirs. This is true with films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket for the war in Vietnam, or even The Hurt Locker for the war in Iraq. 

 

At the end of the day, the film is a very difficult watch and it is every bit as depressing and brutal as any other war movie I’ve seen with this project, but also every bit as good. Milestone’s directorial fingerprints helped to land this film on AFI’s best ever list in 1998, sure, but it’s also a very relevant and very human story. All Quiet on the Western Front forces us to question our own thoughts of war and conquest, and makes us squirm at the details and gore along the way. But that’s what we need it to do. There isn’t always two sides to every war; it’s not like winning a coin toss. Each soldier has his or her own life, their own thing to fight for. 

 

But war for war’s sake is not an option either as Milestone tells us. When Paul gets leave and returns home, he’s believed to be a coward for speaking out against the war. Yet, he dies anyway, reaching for a butterfly, a symbol of calm serenity and one of life’s most beautiful gifts. His death hits us hard and makes us ask if it was all worth it in the end. 1. 

 

Bonus Points

I’m giving a point to the cinematography and directing. 

 

Final score: 9/10

 

Oscar Facts

All Quiet on the Western Front  won the 3rd Academy Award for Best Picture on November 5, 1930 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat out Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Big House, and The Love Parade for Best Picture. All Quiet on the Western Front won two Oscars out of four nominations. 

 

Other winners that night included George Arliss winning Best Actor and Norma Shearer winning Best Actress. Conrad Nagel hosted the ceremony. 

 

Next Week

I keep moving down the list with 1996’s The English Patient. After that, it’s An American in Paris, Gigi, Hamlet, Out of Africa, Ordinary People, and Oliver!

 

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