I’ve paddled my Great War Film canoe up this particular creek before. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) is probably THE Great War Film. It’s a name that people know even if they’ve not seen the film. When it pops up in conversation that I review Great War Films the first film that most people mention is ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. It’s a true classic. It regularly turns up in Top 100 lists. It’s held up as an example of what was possible at the cutting edge of what 1930’s sound cinema could offer. All of which begs the question why would anyone try to remake it? Well, as I fire up the 1979 version, I guess I’m about to find out.
The simple answer to that question is that they haven’t really remade the 1930 version. What the team behind this version have done is to return to the source material, the 1929 book by Erich Maria Remarque, and produce a new film without much, if any, regard for the previous work. What this means is that large chunks of the film are the same as its predecessor, some other bits bare more than a striking resemblance but others are completely new and original. I’ve not read the book (I really should, I suppose) but I have a strong feeling this version is a lot closer to it than the original film was. There are lots of bits in the film where Baumer monologues. These sections sound very literary. I’ll confirm this in due course when I find a copy of the book.
This version was filmed for TV in 1979. If I’m being honest I wasn’t really expecting too much given these two facts. In my head TV didn’t really begin knocking out quality content until a few short years ago, and the 70’s doesn’t stand out to me as a halcyon age of anything, except maybe Blaxploitation and porn (neither of which genres feature heavily within the realms of this blog). But, I’m glad to say I was wrong. From the get go, where we get introduced to John Boy Walton in the role of Paul Baumer and Ernest Borgnine as ‘old sweat’ Kat it’s clear this film has had some money and care lavished on it.
Visually they’re actually more similar than you’d think. The original is, of course, in black and white while this version is in colour but they both have a thick layer of grit on them. Neither film focusses on the gore but at the same time they don’t shy away from it either. My first gripe pops up around about here and it’s something I’ve noted in US made for TV movies before. In the battle scenes, and just like in ‘Lost Battalion’, the extras seem to have been taught that when they get shot they have to fling their arms in the air and shake like a jelly-wobble-on-a-plate. It’s okay when you see the odd one or two dying like this but in a wide shot where a whole line of dudes are falling dead it’s like something out of ‘Saturday Night Fever’.
Other than John Boy and Ernest there are a couple of other faces I recognise. Donald Pleasence plays the rabble rousing teacher who sets the boys minds to joining up at the start of the film, quite a small role for him but I don’t think he was particularly picky when it came to his roles (Pumaman was released the following year). Also Paul Baumers’ father was played by a real blast from my personal past, Michael Sheard. You may remember him (if you’re of a certain age and from the UK) as the grumpy teacher Mr Bronson from the BBC kids TV show Grange Hill.
The main elements of the story are all there. We get to know Baumer and the boys but the relationship between Baumer and Kat is a lot more front and centre than in the earlier film. While this is good it is to the detriment of the other actors who all start to blur into one another. The story of the bastard drill instructor from their pasts is played up more in this version. He gets a medal for his bravery even though he was found quivering in a shellhole by Baumer during an advance. The direct quotes from the book help to set the emotional tone and give an insight into what’s happening inside Baumers’ head.
The shellhole scene is there. The one where Baumer stabs a French soldier with his knife and has to sit there watching him slowly expire. It’s excruciating to watch in the earlier film and I was expecting this version to be watered down in comparison. I’m glad to say it just about stands up. While not as heart rending as the original it does tug at the heart strings in its’ own way.
Reading this back to myself I am maybe comparing the two films too much. They are not the same, they weren’t meant to be. Basically, I don’t feel like I’m comparing apples with apples. The Director, Delbert Mann, came from a mixed TV and movie background. He blurred the lines between the two disciplines and bought film techniques to TV. This is evident here and is a massive benefit to the film. He also has some previous having won an Oscar for Best Film for his Movie debut ‘Marty’ starring a younger Ernest Borgnine. He was well respected and was the President of The Directors Guild of America for a few years. With him on board this film would’ve struggled to be rubbish!
The ending is, much like the rest of the film, different, similar and a bit the same all at the same time. I shan’t spoil it but I will say there’s no butterfly. Overall it’s a worthy film in its own right and I do worry a bit that anyone who sees it will be comparing it to its predecessor exactly as I have done. This is a shame because it’s a good’un and it’s worth being considered on its own merits, which are plenty. So do dig it out if you’ve not seen it. I wonder what my thinking about the two films would be if I saw this one first. Maybe give that a go if you’ve not seen the earlier one. Let me know which you prefer.