Starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr., Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville, G. Pat Collins, Beryl Mercer, Edmund Breese
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Expectations: Moderate. I’m not too excited to watch this for some reason.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a remarkable film for its day, and it’s one that still holds up impressively well today. It is a war film that contains everything you could possibly want in one: battles, boot camp, camaraderie, patriotism, disillusionment, the list goes on. The film opens on the patriotic high of classmates enlisting for their country’s greater good, spurred on by the rousing words of their professor, and it eventually works its way through the war to a very natural and emotional anti-war ending.
Set during World War I and focusing on the German side of the struggle, All Quiet on the Western Front is largely plotless and driven simply by the various episodes and struggles the characters go through. There’s no grand goal for them to achieve; the film doesn’t even attempt to convey the context of the war and which side is which. This one is specifically from the point of view of the enlisted man, the man who must die for his country and who stands to gain nothing more than the right to go back to his life if he survives the war.
On a production level, All Quiet on the Western Front is astounding. There are many scenes filled with hundreds of extras, layering the film with an air of realism that few war films can come close to matching. Even the battle sequences — which are multiple and surprisingly long — hold up as skillfully edited pieces of montage that contain much more of the kinetic energy of Saving Private Ryan than I ever would have expected them to. It was a hard-hitting experience to watch the film now, I can only imagine how groundbreaking and impacting it was in 1930. It is an amazingly well-produced film that entertains as well as it drives home its “War is hell” message.
The cinematography is also quite impressive. The battle sequences alone must have caused the crew some serious headaches, as director Lewis Milestone often has his camera moving effortlessly along the top of the trenches, or tracking the soldiers as they run across the exploding, war-torn battlefield. There were also a few close-ups towards the beginning that reminded me greatly of silent films. These shots captured the young classmates as they cried out their support for joining the army, but instead of their individual cries, only the general sounds of the boisterous classroom can be heard. It made me think that Milestone might have shot these men in this way to purposefully — and perhaps subliminally — harken back to the silent age. All Quiet on the Western Front was made only a couple of years after the dawn of sound at the cinema, but by using these “old-style” images it felt like Milestone was adding another layer of naivety to the characters. If they only knew what was around the corner for them.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a stunning film that will not disappoint anyone who likes classic films or war films. Lewis Milestone created one iconic, amazing film here, so it’s no surprise that it won Best Picture and Director at the Academy Awards, and continues to be seen as one of the quintessential war pictures. Highly recommended.
All Quiet on the Western Front is part of my 2014 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part in the series. And feel free to participate on your own blog as well!