#347) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
OR “Milestone’s Milestone”
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Written by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott and Del Andrews. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
Class of 1990
NOTE: “All Quiet on the Western Front” is currently available in its restored cut, which, while the most exhaustive known print of the film, is 20 minutes shorter than its original release. Check your attics.
The Plot: The Great War has broken out, and a group of German students are motivated to enlist when their professor (Arnold Lucy) gives an impassioned speech about “saving the Fatherland”. Told primarily from the point of view of young Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), the boys’ idealistic view of war is immediately shattered following a series of unforgiving battles and harsh living conditions. Although older unit member “Katz” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) takes the boys under his wing, nothing can protect them from the mental and physical anguishes of war. “All Quiet on the Western Front” was the first major piece of literature to show World War I from the perspective of the Germans, many just as patriotic and naïve as their American counterparts.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “among the greatest antiwar films ever made” and praises director Milestone. There’s also talk of the film’s production value and subsequent controversy (see “Legacy” below). An essay by Garry Wills discusses the film’s restoration.
But Does It Really?: “All Quiet on the Western Front” seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of classic movies, which is a shame because it is still one of the greats. Every anti-war film since 1930 has taken a page from “Western Front”, and much of the film still holds up remarkably well. Kudos to Lewis Milestone and his team for making a war movie that can still elicit an emotional response from its audience almost a century later.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the supporting cast, notably Louis Wolheim. Born in New York City, Wolheim started in film with some encouragement from John and Lionel Barrymore. Thanks to a nose injury sustained in his youth, Wolheim was usually relegated to playing thugs and lowlifes, but director Lewis Milestone enjoyed casting him against type in such films as this and “Two Arabian Knights”.
Take a Shot: Weirdly, they don’t say the title in the movie, even though it’s one of the final lines of the novel and is, ya know, the whole crux of the damn thing!
Seriously, Oscars?: “All Quiet on the Western Front” was one of the biggest hits of the year and received four Oscar nominations at the 3rd annual ceremony. “Western Front” became the first movie in Oscar history to win both Best Picture and Best Director, which ended up being its only two victories. Most egregious: the film wasn’t even nominated in the brand new Best Sound category, and Arthur Edeson lost Cinematography to a documentary! A documentary for God’s sake!
- For you theater geeks out there, screenwriter George Abbott is the legendary theater director/producer of such shows as “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees”. He lived to be 107 years old!
- Cinematographer Arthur Edeson earned his Oscar nomination. There’s a lot of powerful storytelling being told with that camera. Also, either Edeson or Milestone really liked shots that start outdoors and move indoors. We get several such shots throughout the film.
- Holy crap these boys were really whipped into a frenzy by Professor Kantorek’s speech. “Dead Poets Society” this is not.
- I don’t know much about WWI, but I’ve always wondered: how many accidents did the German soldiers have with those helmets?
- This must be that section of Germany where only one out of every hundredth person has an accent.
- Katczinsky seems like a cross between Alan King and Teddy from “Bob’s Burgers”. I see why they cast Ernest Borgnine in the remake.
- Just a reminder that every effect in this movie is practical. Those are real explosions with real actors. It’s effects like these that help the film remain relevant.
- Speaking of, the film’s first casualty got to me. Not bad for a 90 year old movie.
- The battles scenes are an impressive feat of filmmaking. In addition to the aforementioned practical effects, the sheer scope of this production is a sight to behold. Coordinating these scenes could not have been easy.
- I’m gonna complain about the film’s lack of a Best Sound nomination a bit more. “Talkies” had only been around for three years at this point; surely “Western Front” was one of the first movies to understand the importance of sound effects as a storytelling device. The sound of machine guns and biplanes punctuate the battle scenes more than any musical score could. I see you, recording supervisor C. Roy Hunter.
- The whole sequence of Paul trying to keep the French soldier alive is really intense. It’s the kind of psychological warfare amidst the physical warfare that never gets into war movies.
- I was not expecting to see any brief nudity in this movie. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to see a potential “shrinkage” joke. I was in a pool!
- Film comedian ZaSu Pitts was originally cast as Paul’s mother, but test audiences automatically laughed at her appearance, and Milestone re-shot her scenes with stage actor Beryl Mercer. Pitts can still be seen in the original trailer.
- The final scene with the butterfly was an afterthought, and Lewis Milestone’s hand subs for Lew Ayres. It’s still one of filmdom’s true “precious images”, and is immediately followed by one of the most haunting final shots ever.
- “All Quiet on the Western Front” opened to a positive reception in America, but Europe was a different story. Poland wouldn’t screen the film due its perceived pro-German stance, while Germany banned it for its perceived anti-German stance. I guess you see what you look for.
- Once the Nazis took power in Germany, the film was met with disruptive protests during screenings, and subsequently banned from theaters. Moreover, copies of the original novel were among the first to be burned by the Nazis.
- Lewis Milestone’s next movie was a little more light-hearted and far less controversial: the comedy (and fellow NFR entry) “The Front Page”. Louis Wolheim was all set to play Walter Burns, but died of stomach cancer before filming began, and was replaced by Adolphe Menjou.
- The original novel got a semi-sequel with “The Road Back”, which Universal made into the 1937 film of the same name. Directed by James Whale and featuring only a handful of returning characters, the film’s more anti-Nazi stances were deleted to ensure box office success overseas.
- The novel was adapted into a TV Movie in 1979 with Richard “John Boy” Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Katz. Another remake has been languishing in development hell for longer than the war it’s trying to replicate.