The Road Back (1937)


I don’t think I need to tell you, dear reader, that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) is a true Great War classic. Even more than that it’s a bone fide all time cinema great. Universal lavished it with the best and brightest of a generation. The director, Lewis Milestone made good on his promise to Studio heads Laemmle Senior and Junior that he would produce a film which highlighted how superior Universal was as the sound era took hold. No expense was spared on every facet of the production. The sound department in particular were spurred on by Milestone to make the trench and battle scenes as realistic as possible. The noises of the deadly shells have never sounded as life threatening and visceral as they do here. Sound was also used cleverly against the restraints of the fledgling talking picture technology. The distant crump of far off shellfire was used to hide the slight hiss inherent in the sound processes of the time.

Even the 1979 made for TV version starring John Boy Walton and Ernest Borgnine has a bit of class. It had to, how do you remake a film like that? The only answer was to treat the 1930 Milestone version as a curio, a glitzy and polished Hollywoodisation of a story written by a German who was there. Who saw it, smelled it and tasted the slow creeping death with each new day. The response to this was to make the 1979 version a more direct book to film transfer. Where Milestone used directors’ licence to push the story along the director of the 1979 version, Delbert Mann, simply acted as a conduit for writer Erich Maria Remarque to tell his story.


Remarque, whilst not particularly prolific, clearly wanted his experiences of the Great War to be known. He had a burning inside, an itchy scritchy need to tell the world what him and his generation had seen. He followed up his classic ‘All Quiet… with a sequel called ‘The Road Back’. As the title alludes, this was the story of the surviving combatants from the first book as they tried to reconnect with their pasts after the conflict ended. They tried to understand what they’d been through and move on with their lives in a world that had changed while they’d been knee deep in death and daily horrors. Those at home didn’t understand or couldn’t, wouldn’t. And even if they did understand and cared to listen, the horror stories to be told stuck hard in the craw of the teller. Stories of dead comrades and a million tragedies felt somehow cheapened, belittled and disrespected by the act of telling.

And then in 1937, as the Nazis were consolidating and readying for a fresh round of atrocities, Universal decide to make a film version of Remarque’s psychological dissertation on the deep and long lasting effects of the Great War. They chose their primo director of the time, James Whale. He of the Universal Horrors, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. He would have no doubt rubbed his hands with glee at the chance to depict horrors of an entirely different kind. They also chose tried and tested Great War veteran and playwright RC Sheriff to write the screenplay. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit as it turns out and if we’re looking to blame anyone we can firstly look at the up and coming Nazis and then also the new bosses at Universal who had recently ousted the Laemmles.


There is/was (hopefully ‘is’ somewhere, hidden, yet to be re-discovered) a version of Whale’s original cut of ‘The Road Back’ which was seen by a few film critics in a pre-release screening. It never saw the light of day. The Nazis got wind of some of the anti-war, Germanic infighting that was portrayed in the film and began to pressure the dollar hungry execs at Universal to soften the sentiment a bit. They would ban all Universal films, turn them away at the border along with their stars, effectively stifling the flood of income from one of the company’s main non-domestic markets to a dribble.

The execs faced the wall and, with only a slight grimace, took it firmly up the arse from the Nazis. Bowing to their demands, they quickly wrested control of the film from Whale. The script was rewritten with comic turns added to lighten the mood, they re-shot scenes and edited what was already in the can. The result is a film which is all over the shop. Occasionally that means we’re in the beautifully lit shop window with the mannequins in their designer clothes looking a million bucks but then seconds later we’re in the bargain bins digging through last years’ tired cardigans.


It’s really good for a bit, the sentiment of Remarques’ story shines through. We have challenging scenes where the soldiers, who on the face of it should be joyfully celebrating the end of the conflict, are actually drawn back to the front lines. A place they’d become accustomed to, where life was a simple matter of survival, where those around them were kindred and caring. And then slap bang next to that beautiful moment of gritty, bitter Pabstian Objectivity we get an unfunny back and forth between the comedy turns which cheapens the previous moments of clarity.

The flourishes, the rare good bits are the remaining moments of James Whale’s direction. The battle scenes, whilst small scale, are mobile, dangerous and sound as real and lively as ‘All Quiet…’. The emotions on display are raw and vivid. And then for large swathes we get nothing but dialogue, boring, nothing dialogue. And piss weak attempts at comedy, bordering on slapstick in places. It’s weird. Whereas in ‘All Quiet…’ where the ‘Americans playing Germans but with American accents’ bit somehow worked, this time round the German characters are played by Americans with American accents and American traits. This small difference takes the conceit one step to far and I needed to keep reminding myself that these guys were meant to be Hun.


Normally a film like this would make me angry but right now I’m sad. I think it’s because what’s left contains a few fleeting moments of what this film could have been. If the Nazi bastards had kept their noses out, if the studio execs had had the balls to stand up for their creatives, if Whale had retained the freedom to do justice to the work of Remarque. I hope one day the original Whale edit is discovered on a dusty shelf or pieced back together again from remnants pulled together from various archives. Sadly I don’t think it will happen, and that’s a shame because what does exist is a sad shadow of what could have been. It’s on the Youtubes here if you want to watch it.

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