IMDB #216 All Quiet On The Western Front

Today, folks, we'll be discussing 1930's All Quiet On The Western Front- yet another in a long line of Best Picture winners. Now, I know all works of art are open to interpretation, and let me know if I'm missing the point entirely, but I gathered one thing from this movie:

War sucks.

It seriously does.

The Key Players:

The director of this early talkie is the appropriately named Lewis Milestone, who won an Oscar for "Best Comedy Direction" (Two Arabian Knights) at the first ever Oscar ceremony before pocketing a straight Best Director statue for this film, two years later. He would go on to helm such classics as The Front Page (which was remade as this), the original Ocean's Eleven, and Mutiny On The Bounty.

Lew Ayres was catapulted to leading man status by his role here, and would later star in nine films in the "Dr. Kildare" series, a franchise which eventually spawned a radio serial and a tv spinoff. He's also, fittingly, a well known conscientious objector: during World War II he made headlines by volunteering, but only if he could serve in the medical corps. In 1948, legend has it that his costar in Johnny Belinda left her husband to be with him (an incident only notable sixty years later because that husband was some B-actor named Ronald Reagan, making him the only divorcee to reside in the White House).

Louis Wolheim (a prolific silent-film actor in one of his last roles), William Bakewell and Ben Alexander (former child stars whose careers were starting to slow down as they got taller), and a half dozen others (along with an amount of extras that would almost certainly be just CGI these days) round out the cast.

Click for More...

The Story:

The movie starts with a paragraph claiming that the narrative here unfolded is "neither an accusation or a confession."

We then begin in Germany at the beginning of World War I, and we see several shots of people waving enthusiastically at departing troops. The populace talk assuredly amongst themselves about the righteousness and reasons for the war, and agree that it will most certainly be over before the years out (much like the British guarantee of "over by Christmas").

With all of this marching acting as a backdrop, we see a crazy, manic schoolteacher giving a speech to his young male students about the just causes for the war, and the glory of volunteering to serve. He tells them of his parents adulation, and the doubtless affections of young women (which two of the boys imagine with silly grins on their faces). He goes on for quite a while about how "sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland," then asks who's willing to serve.

Every young man in the class jumps up to serve, including our hero Paul (Ayres) and his classmates Kemmerich, Kropp, and Behn. The shots of their ecstatic faces as they leap out of their seats to volunteer (except Behn, who needs to be cajoled into it) are truly frighteningly done (or just a serious case of early-sound-era over-acting).

We then follow the recruits to boot camp, where your standard sadistic instructor puts them through the rounds. After just a few marching drills, however, they're called to the front.

Then the nightmare begins: non-stop artillery shelling, endless rain and mud, and little to no food greet our eager young soldiers (all those classmate somehow assigned to the same unit, too). Behn is the first casualty, blinded by shrapnel and then cut down by machine gun fire from the opposing French lines.

A wizened old hand named Katczinsky teaches Paul and co. which noises mean you should drop to the ground, and how to beat off rats when they get rare meals. They start to lose their grip as the endless shelling prevents sleep: Kemmerich, Paul's best friend, flips out and runs out of the trench, getting shot in the leg.

Then we get an epically long battle sequence, as the French charge, the Germans fall back, then retake the original trench they occupied in the first place. A war of inches indeed. The fellows return to find Kemmerich on the verge of death, unaware (until someone accidentally blurts it out) that his leg has been amputated. He dies shortly thereafter, and several more battles ensue.

Eventually Paul is severely injured, and taking to the "dying room" in a Catholic hospital, along with Kropp.

The Artistry:

For a film that was produced three years after the advent of "talkie" pictures, the relative mastery of the battle scenes in this film is astounding. Seemingly endless explosions, thousands of extras, and multiple well-executed side-tracking shots of soldiers running one way or another reminded me of countless more modern war films. Sixty years before Saving Private Ryan (which Spielberg says was patially inspired by AQotWF), battle scenes were plenty impressive.

The story, simple as it is, is brutally straightforward. The novel is narrated by Paul, but it only becomes clear that he's the main character of the film when the others get killed, one by one.

Every now and then, in between battles, the soldiers take a moment to espouse basic philosophic questions undermining the concept of war. They wonder why countries go to war, and one soldier suggests it's as simple as one offending the other. In response: -"You mean there's a mountain over in Germany gets offended by a field over in France?"


Paul miraculously recovers, and leaves Krupp on his deathbed after earning a furlough. He returns to his hometown, and finds the populace mindlessly enthusiastic about the cause, with no idea what the trenches are really like.

He stops by his former teacher's classroom- the old man is now giving the same speech to an even younger class than Paul was when he left- he asks Paul to tell them of the glory of war.

Bitter, Paul tells them: " I can't tell you anything you don't know. We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed; and sometimes we are. That's all."

He returns to the front, to find only Katczinsky and a few others remaining of his old company. He and Kat warmly reunite, but an airplane drops a shell nearby, injuring the older man's leg. Paul starts to carry him to the infirmary, but another bomb drops, and a piece of shrapnel kills the man while he carries him. Paul doesn't realize this until he reaches the camp, and then his spirits fall when he finds his last friend a corpse.

A short time later, a despondent Paul sees a butterfly just beyond the trench. He reaches out for it, and a French sniper shoots him in the chest, his hand frozen mid-reach.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

As a narrative film, it drags quite a bit to tell a simple story, but for contemporary achievment, it's no wonder the awards and influence heaped on this film. I say higher.

The Legacy:

In addition to the awards previously mentioned, and National Film Registry inclusion, Hitler banned the film in Germany in the late 30s and 40s, and in various other countries that have wanted to quell anti-war sentiment at other times.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Well, there's always a clip reel set to System Of A Down songs! Or maybe the last scene in the film, spoilers and all:

Leftover Thoughts:

-There's one great, great sequence that gives away that this movie was intially going to be a silent film. Kemmerich has a nice pair of boots from his uncle- when he dies, we see another soldier get them, and then a shot of him marching proudly in the lines. He's shot and killed, and we see the boots on another soldier, who gets killed in turn. This is all done wordlessly, a great visual tranisition.

-Another cool shot, included above, of an earlier image of the line of troops glancing backward, one by one as the march through the rain, is superimposed on a military graveyard- the ghosts of those young men, all dead by the film's last shot, looking back one last time.

-Apparently before they had the power to ban it, Nazis tried releasing live rats in theaters to disrupt screenings of All Quiet On The Western Front. Because that would totally work: Man, war is really a futile and pointlessly cruel endev- AAAH! Something on my foot!

0 Response to "IMDB #216 All Quiet On The Western Front"

Powered by Blogger