The Best Picture Project – All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Directed by Lewis Milestone Jr. Based upon the novel by Erich Maria Remarque

Starring Lew Ayres

If there’s one thing to be learned from every war movie ever made – or every movie made that touches upon war, except maybe for John Wayne movies – it’s that war is hell. A secondary lesson is that, in spite of everyone’s optimistic prediction that the war will be short-lived, always over in a matter of weeks, it never is. Because of the dramatic interplay of the two lessons they almost always appear on film together and even though they weren’t knew concepts when All Quiet on the Western Front was made, it’s likely to be the first sound movie they made an appearance in en masse.

The plot of the movie, what plot there is, follows closely to that of the novel upon which it’s based. A group of school boys are whipped into a patriotic fervor by their teacher and enlist in the German army in WWI. As they deal with the horrors of war and just as quickly as the boys become men they die off, whittled away until, finally at the end the last of them, Paul – in an iconic scene – is shot trying to reach out of a trench for a butterfly.

Unfortunately, while the film was serious and prestigious at the time, through the prism of history it feels very rote. Just think about the elements of the film that were picked up and used elsewhere, and probably in a better way:

  •  The patriotic speeches and fervor about war being glorious and the enemy being so weak they’ll be defeated in a matter of days? Gone With The Wind
  • The sadistic drill instructor? Full Metal Jacket
  • The experienced guys teaching the younger guys to stay alive? Platoon
  • The scrounger capable of getting anything, including food? The Great Escape
  • The ironic death? Saving Private Ryan
  • The war film that is heavily anti-war? Just every other film ever made

 

I’m sure there are others I can’t think of – this can hardly be the first movie to have French girls canoodling with German soldiers – but the point is made. Still, just because it feels rote now has nothing to do with any drawbacks of the film, it has to do with history appropriating the elements and making them rote and if we could strip history from view the film might be as powerful now as it was then.

Still, history cannot be overlooked and while the film was serious and brutal and unrelenting and just the type of film to win best picture – then or at any time – now it’s somewhat unwatchable. Absolutely, there are parts of the movie that feel very modern. There are dolly-shots, handheld shots and expressionistic lighting but there are just as many parts that drag it down.

The special effects are basically lousy. The sound is weird in that sometimes it seems like, if you can’t see it on the screen you can’t hear it – there’s a scene with an airplane dropping bombs where hearing the airplane depends on seeing it on screen – even though in real life you can hear things outside your field of vision without a problem. The script is loaded with stilted dialog, the way people talk in books and not in real life – in a book people saying ‘going to’ but in real life they say ‘gonna’ but unfortunately, the movie hasn’t figured that out and the actors struggle to sound natural. The actors tend to speechify and the acting is still heavily influenced by silent film techniques in that everybody overplays every line of dialog and is intent on making crazy expressions with their faces and simply mugging for the camera, as if acting you can see is acting that is good. The next scene perfectly illustrates this last point.

And, worst of all, the movie is obvious. In case you missed the films overarching worldview – the less-than-subtle message – the film refuses to skip out on its responsibilities to obviousness.

All Quiet on The Western Front might have won best picture in 1930, and at the time it was deserving, but if you’re really interested in a superb WWI movie, look no further than Paths of Glory and skip this movie outright.

Trivia:

Lewis Milestone won Best Director for All Quiet on the Western Front at the third annual Academy Awards but although there had only been three Academy Awards years, there were actually four Directing Oscars. This is because in the first year of the Academy, and the first year only, an award was given out for Comedy Direction which, ironically, was won by Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights. Somehow, though, this fact has been lost to the dustbin of history and Milestone is never properly mentioned as having won two awards for best director. Incidentally, Milestone went on to direct the original Ocean’s Eleven.

At the time he produced this picture Carl Laemmle, jr., (pictured left) who would go on to make Universal a boatload of money producing Dracula, Frankenstein and the like, was only 22 years old, certainly making him the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for producing the best picture.

For The List of Other Oscar Winners and the Countdown: Click Here.

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