Sunday, October 4, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Slim Summerville, William Bakewell
Genre: War
Other Nominees: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade

This film itself is shocking in many ways but for me what I find most shocking is the fact that within ten years of its release another great World War was underway. That fact leaves me asking whether as human beings we can ever learn from our past. All Quiet on the Western Front is a harrowing and brutal portrayal of life in the trenches of World War I. And when I say harrowing I mean it. Do not make the same mistake I made and think that movies from this time were not capable of being as gritty as movies today. It may lack the gore that is prevalent in today’s films but it is no less hard hitting.

I cannot put it better than a 1930 Variety magazine review put it:

The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the
master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations
until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.
Clearly the League of Nations ignored this advice as despite being released eleven years after the end of World War I the stance taken in this film did not prevent the outbreak of another World War nine years later. Perhaps if the world had been forced to see this film things would have worked out differently.

The story follows a classroom of teenagers from a small German town. The first few minutes of the movie stay within this town where patriotism is running rampant. The people are in fervor as they send off the latest batch of troops to the front line, with parades and celebrations in full swing. Of course the young impressionable minds are swayed by this euphoria, and when coupled with the fact that their teacher is lecturing them about the heroism of war, the result is a mass enlisting in the army.

It is clear that this is the first ever anti-war movie. The message is loud and clear: whatever pride you imagine comes with being a soldier will be destroyed when you arrive at the front line and when you face the horrors of war. There is a clever daydreaming sequence in the beginning where we see all kinds of imagined pride that the boys can think of.

We spend the rest of the movie following this same classroom as their numbers dwindle. The sheer range of horrors touched upon is incredible and it is not long before the young soldiers are showing signs of great stress: nightmares, shaking uncontrollably, and screaming about the unrelenting bombs. There is no real score for this film, instead as viewers our ears are subjected to the screeching and impacts from those bombs. With the exception of a few scenes the sounds of bombing are ever present. And accompanying them is a continuous run of amputation, rat infestations, starvation, shrapnel wounds, bayoneting, and so on. It really does get brutal in parts. The chaos, confusion and fear can be felt as we watch these young men struggle.

It has to be said that the real focus of the film is on the impact that these events have on the minds of the soldiers. Most of them suffer from streaks of madness or hysterical reactions as the stress builds. After the credits roll the following words are displayed on screen:

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...

So again I come back to the fact that I cannot believe that less than two decades after the events from this movie the world was once again fighting another war! It is interesting that Universal re-released the film in 1939 at a time when this second war was raging. Apparently anti-Nazi announcements were read out throughout the film but the aim was to remind people of the horrors of wars in a time of international unrest. The Nazi party went on to ban the film in Germany.

I am somewhat in awe of this film and am not surprised at all at its best picture nomination. I have a feeling it would still win many awards if it was released as is today.

Next Up: A hopefully less intense Cimarron (the first western to win Best Picture)

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