10 August 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

d. Lewis Milestone / USA / 138 mins.

Lewis Milestone's 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front is typically considered to be the first great work of Hollywood's sound era. No doubt it is an influential and important film, complete with an amazing production value and ultra-realistic depictions of World War I (both on and off the battlefield). It is not, however, a war film I would cite as rousing or tremendously entertaining; one pass through All Quiet on the Western Front and you'll probably have your fill.

Lew Ayres stars as the idealistic Paul, who enlists in the war effort after a nationalistic teacher pushes his class be loyal countrymen and do their part. Paul survives the front and returns disillusioned to his politically deaf hometown, finding no one really cares how his first-person point of view has changed his views on warfare. It's not a great performance, but it is a mission fully accomplished by Ayres. (The film had such a profound effect on him he became a conscientious objector during World War II and served as a medic.) Strangely, although the film takes an unflinching allegiance to the ordinary men who become pawns in their government's war games, none of the principal actors really shine and instead seem to become pawns in Milestone's message. (His adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel plays no games with the anti-war and pacifist message; it is straightforward and always consistent, if often ingratiatingly preachy.)

The battle scenes are nothing short of technically spectacular, however. Despite the fact that it was released in 1930 (and without the Production Code in full enforcement), it's a fairly brutal movie. Both the cinematography and the editing are as finely attuned as one can hope; the great Arthur Edeson's cinematography was nominated for an Oscar, but he lost to the photographers of the film With Byrd at the South Pole, which absolutely no one remembers today. (All Quiet on the Western Front did win Best Picture and Director, though.)

The film's success seems surprising in hindsight; it debuted between the World Wars and right as the United States had fallen into the Great Depression. Although it stars a cast of all-American actors, the point-of-view is told from the German side of World War I (re: the enemy side), and even if you're looking at its cast as American stand-ins, it's not particularly a I-love-my-nation kind of film. All Quiet on the Western Front had an unquestionable influence on greater war films – Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan come to mind immediately – but it's valuable more for its message and advanced filmmaking rather than its entertainment factor.


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