Friday, June 14, 2013

All Quiet On The Western Front (Best Picture 1930)

When I was in college I had a joint History-English class on the topic of "war." As our textbooks we read novels and literature based on war, such as The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien. Once a week we saw a movie set during whichever war we were discussing, and this is when I saw All Quiet On The Western Front for the first time.

The film is based on the German novel by Erich Maria Remarque, which was published in 1920. It is the story of Paul, one of the earliest volunteers when war breaks out in 1914. Paul and his classmates can't wait to join up amid all of the hoopla and talk that the war will be over quickly. In a shocking scene, their school teacher basically fans their passions to join up until they all enroll en masse. In fact, there are many shocking scenes in this motion picture, which was made before The Hays Code went into effect. For one thing, the actors bathe in a river and are clearly nude. For another, they meet up with French peasants immediately after this scene and obviously have sex with them. In fact, for the scene between Paul and his woman where we assume they are lying in bed after having sex, the camera stays on the wall of the room, showing neither of them or the bed. Earlier the women joked that the men were coming to their cabin totally naked, so was it not obvious that they were all having sex?  Still, I doubt even this scene could not have been filmed in post-Code Hollywood, let alone the more risqué ones. 
Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim
Paul is played by a very young and handsome Lew Ayres. I was only familiar with him from his much later appearances in the Seventies, when he was probably in *his* seventies as well. Here he begins his portrayal as Young with a capital "Y," representing all the new recruits who are churned up in the War. Later in the film when he gets leave and goes back to his village he has become a hardened veteran. He meets his previous teacher and confronts him and the current student body in a depressing scene. As I watched it I wondered if this was the first time a "war-torn/shell shocked" character had ever appeared on film. Nearly one-hundred years later we have seen the hardened veteran say, "You'll never understand it until you see it for yourself!" but at this time, it was probably refreshingly new.

The film is a series of vignettes as it follows Paul and his class-mates as they start off at Boot Camp, then make their way towards their meeting with Death in The War. I am not sure how many friends there are at the beginning, but one dies the very first night, one is shot in the next skirmish, one deserts, and so on. In one brilliantly done bit, Franz' nice leather boots go from virginal Franz to more cynical Mueller and then onto others until they are lost on some faceless soldier. In another of the more shocking scenes, Paul goes to the makeshift hospital to visit Franz and when Franz dies, Paul goes into a type of shock: he is wondrously happy just to be alive! My description of this scene doesn't do it justice; the look on Lew Ayres' face as he admits that he feels happy because although Death took his friend *he* is still alive is powerful stuff.

Another shocking sequence is when Paul's forces rush a French line, only to be repelled back. Paul falls into a hole and is left behind what is now the enemy line. He spends desperate minutes waiting for the French to be repulsed again. When they do retreat, he takes it upon himself to attack one of the French soldiers, killing him with his bayonet. However, the French soldier does not die immediately, making Paul endure a long night with him in the foxhole until he finally expires. The range of emotions that Paul goes through is stunning to see: jubilation at having attacked and killed and enemy; determination to see that the soldier actually survives; anger at him for not dying quickly enough;  and then finally sorrow for having murdered him. It is a painful experience for Paul to endure and a painful experience for us to watch.

As Paul's comrades-in-arms die off one by one he becomes more and more fatalistic and resigned to his fate. His mentor Kat is played wonderfully by Louis Wolheim, an actor I have never seen any where else. He was a popular silent film actor but died of cancer in 1931, which is why I don't know him. Paul's two other long-suffering comrades are Tjaden, played by Slim Summerville, and Albert, played by William Bakewell. Most of the others are shadows or cyphers, but these three are with Paul almost to the end, and do a great job in their supporting roles. Ben Alexander has a wonderful death scene as Franz; as soon as he struts around about his wonderful leather boots, I knew he was a goner! And he plays his scenes well; we don't really know him, but he makes us understand his fear and anger at having to die so young.
When I watched the film I thought it was inconsequential that the protagonists were German. For example, there is a scene where the grunts discuss the cause of the war and suggest that in the future when nations have disagreements the opposing government cabinets should get in a ring and box it out amongst themselves. I think dialogue like that knows no nationality. However, I read that Adolf Hitler *hated* this film and would not allow it to be shown in Germany. Granted,  he is the extreme, but I wonder if Americans at the time embraced this film precisely because the characters were not American? Compare this film to Wings, which was not exactly propaganda, but did glorify World War I more than this film did. Perhaps there was a sub-text to this film that Germany *had* started the war? I didn't see it, but I suppose it could be there. By now I think there have been enough war films to know that the nationality really doesn't come into it, but in 1930 it probably was a sore subject.
the last scene in the movie...."gone for soldiers, every one...."

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
*Academy Award Best Picture 1929-30*
Produced by Carl Laemmle
Directed by Lewis Milestone (Oscar, Best Director)
Screenplay by George Abbott
Adaptation by Del Andrews
Adaptation & Dialogue by Maxwell Anderson
based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque 

trailer for the 1930 release
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Big House
The Divorcee
The Love Parade 
Well, this is the third year in a row where I haven't heard of any of the other nominees for Best Picture. I guess that's not *quite* true: I have heard of Disraeli and The Divorcee, because George Arliss won Best Actor for his role as Benjamin Disraeli and Norma Shearer won Best Actress for her role as The Divorcee. But I've never seen them and I really haven't heard or seen George or Norma in anything else.

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