All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) [50 Films Older Than Me #44]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #44.

Spoilers ahead.  

All Quiet on the Western Front

Directed by Lewis Milestone

Release Year:  1930 (40 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Paul Bäumer is a young German man who enthusiastically joins the army as the “Great War” breaks out, with thoughts of bringing glory to the fatherland. He and his friends head into service together. He finds a mentor in to experienced veteran soldier Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinksky, but quickly discover the horrors and hardships of the war are nothing like what he had imagined. A trip back home proves miserable because of how disconnected people’s lives are there compared to the front lines. Paul’s friends all fall in one way or another, including Kat, and In a moment of absent-mindedness on the battlefield, Paul himself is shot is killed.

Starring Lew Ayers as Paul Bäumer. Also starring Louis Wolheim as Kat, John Wray as the town postmaster-turned-abusive drill sergeant, Arnold Lucy as Paul’s teacher who inspires him to join the army. William Bakewell, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville, Harold Goodwin, Scott Kolk, Russell Gleason, and Richard Alexander all appear as different soldiers that Paul serves alongside of. Yola d’Avril plays Suzanne, a French girl that Paul spends the night with at one point.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’d read the novel, by Erich Maria Remarque, a long time ago–so I had a general idea of the overall plot, and I was aware of the movie’s famous final scene in which Paul dies. Knowing that this was an early talking film I expected it to be pretty staged and stilted. I erroneously thought this movie was in German.

Reality: Yes, though All Quiet in the Western Front is a German novel which takes place in Germany, the movie is a Hollywood production which is completely in English. Indeed, a chunk of contemporary German of 1930 opposed the film (including the Nazi party), accusing it as they did of having an anti-German bias (strangely, it was also banned in parts of Australia for some years because it espoused “pacifism.”)

All Quiet on the Western Front certainly is not anti-German, but it does have nice things to say about blind nationalism. The movie begins with a stirring speech from the local school teacher about the moral responsibility that all the young men in the room have join the war effort. He speaks with impassioned zeal and stirs the boys up to a patriotic frenzy, in a sequence that definitely makes one feel uncomfortable–these kids for sure are seeing things clearly.

This all contrasts strongly with the sequence where Paul returns home after being wounded. Everyone has assumptions and expectations about who he is, what his life is like, and what his perspective on the war should be. Paul’s bitter tirade to his old teacher’s newest crop of students is just as “on the nose” as the recruitment speech at the beginning, but is very effective at showing the emptiness of the romantic dreams people have about war and the brutal reality Paul has been experiencing.

The movie fills the time in between these two classroom scenes with some of the most harrowing war sequences ever put to film. Above all the others is an extended depiction of the unit’s attempts to defend their trench from French forces advancing over No Man’s Land. The experience is immersive and terrifying, as we find ourselves in the position of soldiers desperately mowing down rows and rows of enemies with machine guns. But even though running straight into gunfire seems pointless, soon the shear number of attackers means the battle has turned to a hand-to-hand skirmish with swords and bayonets–it’s one of those battles that is so intense you just believe anyone could survive. Once the attackers are pushed back, the Germans take their turn and seize their enemy’s trench, and the whole thing plays out again except inverted left-to-right. It’s a masterfully filmed and edited sequence which becomes all the more poignant when it ends with both no land actually gained by either side.

And this is just one of numerous powerful moments. There’s an amazing montage of a pair of boots, for example, where we follow the footwear through several owners as each is subsequently killed. There is the extended scene of the soldiers forced to stay hidden in a tiny bunker while they are under fire, constantly under threat of cracking in the claustrophobic conditions. And of course there is the haunting conclusion where Paul dies when he absent-mindedly leans out too far to try to touch a butterfly.

Probably most memorably, however, there is a whole sequence where Paul is trapped in a foxhole with a dying French soldier that he himself has mortally wounded. Paul ends up spending the night there, trying to keep the man alive, but ultimately failing. He later pleads with the man’s corpse for forgiveness for killing him–it’s as obvious as the speeches in the classroom, but is still immensely powerful.

Like many older movies, it only exists to be seen today thanks to careful reconstructions that have taken place at some point over the decades. In this case, the restoration undid studio changes including the addition of music cues that were against the wishes of the director. The end result is a presentation which includes all known existing footage, but which is almost 20 minutes shorter than the movie was when it was originally released. I have no idea what was lost but the film that we have today does not feel like it’s missing anything.

Apparently, a sequel was made in 1936 called The Road Back (based on a sequel novel by Remarque). The only actor who reappeared was Slim Summerville, whose character Tjaden was one of the few to survive the first film. The movie came under pressure from the Germany government, which threatened to boycott all of Universal Studios movies unless anti-Nazi sentiments were watered down. Universal gave to the pressure and the film was heavily re-shot and re-edited (and made into a partial comedy in the process). Possibly in consequence of all of this, it was dismal failure.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? The movie wears its heart on its sleeve, so there is no doubt where it is coming from. But that’s okay, because its brilliantly directed and edited, and tells its story and delivers its message with devastating power and clarity.

See here for the Master List.

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