My original plan was to do this one first. All Quiet on the Western Front was originally going to be review number one on this here blog but I demurred, some might say panicked. Much like the ‘Fake Sheikh’ (an undercover newspaper reporter for any non UK readers) when offered a thick strip of cocaine from the warm, firm breasts of a high class hooker, I politely declined, collected my coat and vacated the premises. The problem for me is a kind of nervous writers’ block bought on by the sheer scale and gravitas of this film. It’s immense. What could I add to the weight of internet content, written by people much more qualified for the task and in a far more erudite and coherent argot than myself. My confidence withered.
And do you know what? It’s kind of happening again, right now. I think I need a drink. I remember seeing a documentary about Bruce Robinson, the writer of ‘Withnail and I’ saying that he’d get blackout drunk whilst smashing at the keys of his typewriter, pass out and eventually come to covered in dribble and snot with some of the most comically perfect dialogue there in black and white right in front of him. Maybe that’s what I need. Fuck!!! I’m procrastinating. Get back to the point. Here goes. Wish me luck.
My fayre today is one the best known, most loved and critically acclaimed of the Great War Films. Yes, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is a mainstream classic. It’s one of the few Great War Films on the AFI 100 list coming in at 54. It’s an early talkie, told from the German Perspective, it’s very anti-war, particularly for the era and it’s got some iconic scenes that we know and recognise. It’s an Epic, it’s Hollywood, it’s terrifying.
The film is a transfer from the original book which was published in 1929. Written by author Erich Maria Remarque, it tells the story of a group of German soldiers from their recruitment to their deaths as they slowly get picked off by the war. Remarque himself fought on the Western Front, receiving an injury about seven weeks after his arrival. He received the German equivalent of a ‘Blighty One’ and spent the remainder of the conflict on the home front. After the war Remarque wrote several novels including ‘All Quiet….’ And a follow up to called ‘The Road Back’. Incidentally this was made into a movie as well but was ruined by studio bosses who kicked the shit out of it so as to appease the German (Nazi) rulers in the hope of it being a lucrative market.
Remarque exiled himself firstly in Switzerland and then the US before finally settling back in Switzerland again. Having had his books banned and burned by the Nazis in the lead up to the Second World War due to their anti-war sentiment, Remarque remained out of their reach. Sadly this wasn’t the case for one of his sisters who was tried on trumped up charges and beheaded. The cost of the execution was billed to another sister. Nazi Bastards. He married actress (and an ex ‘Mrs Chaplin’) Paulette Goddard and together they remained in Switzerland until his death in 1970.
The film version came into being in large part due to the desire of Universal Studios to gentrify its’ output. Carl Laemmle Jr, having taken over the running of Universal from his old man a couple of years previously, had a desire to bring the studio into the talkie age with a bang. Senior was one of the old school and while he no doubt had a nose for empire building and nepotism with loads of his family in senior roles around the business, he recognised the studio needed new leadership to thrust it into the limelight of the sound era. Laemmle the Younger was casting around for something serious to get his teeth into. Something to give the studio some credibility and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was just the ticket. Now he just needed to get the right people in place to make the bloody thing.
Director Lewis Milestone had previously worked on another Great War Film, Howard Hughes’ ‘Hell’s Angels’ starring Jean Harlow, although he didn’t receive a screen credit for it. He’d been a bit of a journeyman having worked around the various studios since the late nineteen teens working as both a screenwriter and director and was casting about for someone new to work with after spending a few years with the famously eccentric Hughes. The money and drive for perfection would’ve been just the ticket for him.
He was given Universal stalwart Cinematographer Arthur Edeson to work his magic on the visuals. Edeson was renowned as a craftsmen and artist. His camerawork here showed the confidence that Milestone had in him was well placed. There are some camera tricks and moves used here that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern movie and at the time they would’ve been absolutely cutting edge.
The biggest thing that I remember from my first watch, and something which hasn’t dulled with subsequent watches is the quality of the battle scenes. The noise of them is immense. The rumbling in the background, the screechy, warbly, imminently deadly shellfire. We see close up hand to hand combat, a bayonet thrust into the chest of a surprised foe. This is 1930! We see poilus running full pelt at their cowering enemies, something changes and they suddenly retreat. The Germans step up out of their trenches and chase them down firing at their backs and cutting them down as they run for their lives. Then it swaps again and the French are back on the attack. The noise, the quick cut editing, the death and destruction all pull together to make it a thoroughly disorienting experience.
The sound is amazing. I need to remind myself again that this is 1930. We’d only had talkies for three years and silent films were still in production. There’s even a silent version of this one that I’ll talk about in a minute. There are the large noises of the battles but there’s also quiet bits where the distant sound of battle serves to highlight the relative safety and calm of the scene. Interestingly, these sounds were added to cover the crackle and hiss inherent on early sound recordings. The machine gun rat-a-tat was faithfully re-produced to sound like the real thing. No expense was spared, no stone left unturned in the production teams’ attempts to make a perfect and cutting edge picture.
I have to mention the bits of the film that have stuck with me and which I look forward to with each viewing. They’re probably the same ones that everyone else remembers as well. There’s the five day bombardment where members of the team go stir crazy, the moments of gore during the battles, a pair of hands left dangling on barbed wire after a red mist direct shell hit. The shell hole scene (oh my god that shell hole scene) where he watches the dude slowly expire then learns his name and finds a picture of his wife and kids in his wallet. Fucking hell that’s probably the best scene in any film I’ve ever watched. There’s the boots taken from a dead comrade that get passed on from soldier to soldier and to some extent become a character in their own right. The butterfly ending, the marching ending, the white crosses ending. So much good stuff going on throughout.
It’s worth pointing out that as a result of his part in this film, Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer) became a pacifist and came to public attention during the Second World War due to his desire to be a conscientious objector. This was frowned upon by a gung ho public and press and, even though he actually served in the war as a medic and was posted to some hairy spots, the public perception of him affected his career and he retreated into obscurity for a few years post war and never truly regained his past glories.
The version I’ve got my hands on is the Universal Studios 100th Anniversary Collector’s edition. They’ve done a lot of work on cleaning up the picture and sound quality whilst also trying to allow the grainy, gritty reality of it to remain. It comes with the little known silent version included as well as a nice little booklet with an intro by Leonard Maltin, star biogs, stills from the film and other bits and bobs. It’s well worth the money IMHO. The silent version is worth a watch for the completists out there and has a rhythm and pace all of its’ own. Clicky Clicky to buy yourself a copy.
For me this is the height of what a Great War Film can be. It’s a film knocked out by the Hollywood system that isn’t glitzy or shallow or afraid to push the boundaries. It’s got some gore……but just the right amount. It’s been produced by people that cared, that did their best to pull together something amazing. And almost without fail they succeeded. I don’t believe that any film can be perfect but to the same degree I can’t really find any faults with ‘All Quiet….’. It’s the kind of film that I will drop anything to see on the big screen, and probably travel a fair old distance too. So please, take my word for it, this is a film that you must see if you’ve not already. And if you have seen it, watch it again.