All Quiet on the Western Front is over eighty years old now but remains one of the greatest anti-war war movies ever made. The film won both a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar in 1930 at the 3rd Academy Awards and its reputation has grown steadily ever since. The film has found a place in the AFI’s Top 100 Movies list and on IMDb’s Top 250 and probably deserves those honours as well as the many other plaudits which are thrown its way. For me the film has aged extremely well in general and apart from some sound problems and the occasional bad acting it is amongst the best films I’ve seen from the period and one of the best war movies ever.
At the outbreak of the First World War a German professor is delivering an impassioned speech to his students about the honour of serving ones country in battle. As his students listen on in awe they enthusiastically enlist en masse as many schools, universities and factories did. After a brief training camp where they soon discover that army life isn’t all fun and games the men head into battle on the Western Front. Over the four years of the war their number dwindles until the film begins to focus on the story of just a couple as well as the veterans they join. It becomes apparent to those who last long enough that they are fighting for nothing and all who survive become disheartened by the war as well as the attitude from home.
I always try to avoid spoilers but I have to mention the final shot of All Quiet on the Western Front as it sums up the plot majestically. Also, given that this is a war film, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are deaths. In the final shot, a disconsolate soldier spies a butterfly which is perhaps the last remaining thing of beauty left on the battlefield and for all he knows left in the world. As he reaches out to touch its delicate frame he is cut down by a bullet and the film fades to black. I found this scene so moving that I had to mention it even though it wades into spoiler territory. One of the reasons I found the scene so moving was because the film had done such a good job in engaging me for the previous two hours.
All Quiet on the Western Front is very successful in shaping the mood of the viewer. In the early stages it is easy to get carried away with the patriotic pageantry of the war’s beginning but as the soldiers themselves become jaded, so does the viewer. There is a beautiful sequence which perfectly demonstrates the senseless waste of life which involves a desirable pair of boots. For several moments we see the war from the boots point of view as they are passed from one soldier to another, each previous owner dying before a new one can wear them. The boots go through several owners in a neat montage which succinctly demonstrates the high casualty rate as well as the camaraderie of the soldiers. Some of the imagery is also quite violent for the period and a shot of a man running across no man’s land before being blown up only to have the smoke clear and reveal his severed hands on barbed wire is an image which will remain with me. There is little or no blood shed on camera and the film is certainly nowhere near as violent as modern war films but for the time it is very explicit.
Although the plot is interesting and deeply anti-war, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the number of characters. It wasn’t until the latter stages and the group had been reduced that I felt I got to know any of them. Thematically this works as it goes to prove the losses but for a sheer enjoyment value I felt a little lost at times. When characters did come to the fore in the second half they were all well written and mostly well acted. The central character is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayers), a young soldier who becomes jaded by his war experiences. Ayers has a couple of dodgy moments acting wise but is very good in the last half hour. His "And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death” speech is very moving and is a good example of the almost poetic dialogue. The plot is seen mostly through his eyes. A character I liked was Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a rough looking veteran who becomes the spiritual and emotional leader of the company. His performance is very good. William Bakewell is also excellent as Albert Kropp.
One of the greatest things about All Quiet on the Western Front is its Direction. Even today it feels modern and fresh but for 1930 it was surely ahead of its time. The cutting is rapid and the battle scenes are violent and intense. A variety of angles and shots are employed including long tracking shots which show the soldiers crossing no man’s land and quirky angles which are used for just the briefest of moments and combined to create a sense of chaos. Steven Spielberg has previously sited the film as an influence on Saving Private Ryan and it is easy to see why. The film’s style is very influential. I only have a couple of small problems with the film and I’ve already mentioned the acting and character development. My only other qualm comes with the sound quality. This is something which I always find myself banging on about but it was a particular problem here. The film was made just a couple of years into the talkie revolution and microphones were in their infancy. There is a worse background hiss in this film than in any other I’ve seen. I sometimes struggled to hear the dialogue above the hiss. The print though is exceptional. I saw the movie on Blu-Ray and it is stunning to imagine that the film is over eight decades old, it certainly doesn’t look it.
On its release Variety stated that “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”. I can think of no greater compliment to the film than the above words. It really is a film which should be seen by every man, every soldier, every politician and every country as it shows the pointless futility of war in a better way than any other movie I’ve seen.
- During the film's German release, the fledgling Nazi Party interrupted screenings by releasing rats into cinemas.
- In part due to his experience on the movie, Lew Ayers became a conciousness objector during the Second World War but served with distinction as a medic. Still, many of his films were banned and he struggled for acting work as a result.
- Despite the Hay's Code being in operation in Hollywood, the violence was passed in part due to the subject matter.
- The film was banned in several axis countries both before and during the second world war and wasn't released in Italy until 1956