We’re entering a brave new world here on Cinematic Century today, folks. Because today marks the first time in this series that we’ve discussed a talkie. Yeah, The Man Who Laughs has some experimental sound integrated into it, and the version of the Gold Rush that’s easiest to find was re-released with a voice-over from Chaplin, but today is the first film that is fully and intentionally a talkie. And it’s a hell of a movie. When I was devising the list that eventually became the Cinematic Century, I wasn’t quite sure what to do for 1930. I assumed that no matter what it was going to be my first talkie, but for quite a while I was leaning towards giving the Marx Brothers their due by featuring Animals Crackers. And it certainly would feel apropos to discuss some of cinema’s finest buffoons here on April Fool’s Day. But, to be completely honest, I don’t think that Animal Crackers really is one of their stronger efforts, and while it certainly has some great bits, it doesn’t exactly hold together as a great story. So, if I wasn’t going to discuss some silly vaudeville, I figured we’d go to the exact opposite direction and discuss one of the bleakest, most upsetting films I’ve ever seen. But, while it’s certainly not a barrel of laughs, it’s hard to deny that Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of the renowned Erich Maria Remarque novel doesn’t deserve this spot. It’s a towering figure in cinematic history, and is the first film that I’ve highlighted here that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Or, “Outstanding Production” as the award was known then, but the point still stands. This is an important film. And, while those can so often be left rather dusty and become more or less academic pursuits rather than legitimately entertaining narratives, this is a film that stands the test of time, remaining a deeply impacting and hauntingly beautiful film.
It’s not surprising at all that this film was made, and was a huge success. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel was a massive success, and it seemed destined to make the leap to the silver screen. And it’s kind of insane how quickly this film was made. The novel was released in January of 1929, and this film was released just over a year later. But, clearly the novel struck a chord, and the folks at Universal, specifically producer Carl Laemmle Jr, decided it needed to be adapted. Remarque was an actual veteran of World War I, and his authentic and brutal prose brought the horror of that war, and all wars, vividly to life. So, it’s no wonder that this film was made. But, what makes it interesting is the fact that this film was so enthusiastically made as a talkie. There had been talkies before this film, but it really did seem like Universal was hoping to use this film as a demonstration of how the medium has evolved. They used this relatively new technology and attached it to what must have been one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the decade. This was a massive film, with literally thousands of extras, and the inclusion of sound was able to bring the horrors of World War I, and Remarque’s novel, to life and to the imaginations of people all around the world. This film easily could have been a cash-grab, churning out a lackluster adaptation to capitalize on the success of the novel while clumsily shoe-horning in a new gimmick. And yet, the care that was taken with this film, and the artistry that was accomplished in such a short amount of time, makes this one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring films I’ve ever seen.
All Quiet on the Western Front follows a group of young German men, all of whom have been more or less bamboozled by a professor of theirs to join the army and participate in the Great War. But, primarily we follow a young man named Paul. They’ve been fed stories of heroism and duty to the Fatherland, so they all enlist, and prepare for a honorable and glorious trip to war. Which becomes a little frustrating when they’re sent to train, and realize that things aren’t going to work out exactly like they intended. The Army isn’t the fun romp that they imagined, and they’re forced to deal with the harsh and bitter realities of military life, and that’s before they even have to head to the front. Because, one they do, they see the Great War for what it was. A terrifying and anxiety-riddled experience where they have to run from trench to trench, hoping to avoid gas, bullets, and suffocation in mud. They’re basically thrown directly into the horrors of the war, unable to find anyone to help them. Eventually they come across a group of older soldiers who take pity upon them, and become something of mentors. Specifically a middle-aged man named Katczinsky who helps the boys learn the truth about military life, and gives them tips on how to stay alive. Which doesn’t always work. The boys quickly start dying, mostly from relatively minor incursions that the boys weren’t even really expecting to be so fatal.
They’re put in a position where they have to either sink or swim, and while some of the boys end up sinking and are picked off by machine-gun fire, the majority of them survive into their first experience of being pinned down. The boys are trapped in a bunker for several days, slowly being driven mad by the lack of food and water and the near constant bombardment of artillery shells. Eventually they finally get some reinforcements, and are able to push forward, gaining a very minor victory, only to have it snatched from them when they’re forced to retreat, making the entire time rather pointless. Morale is obviously rather low at this point, but they are somewhat cheered up by a brief respite where they’re allowed to leave the front and get some good food for a change. But, that’s quickly taken from them when they’re force to watch a friend of theirs die in an over-crowded and under-staffed field hospital after having his legs amputated. And, to make matters worse, the boy have to participate in another push, during which Paul and an Allied soldier end up falling down into a pit where he’s forced to kill the soldier, face to face. Paul then has to spend the entire night down in the pit with the corpse of the soldier that he killed, fully having all of his illusions of war stripped from him.
And this illusion is never brought back to him. Paul finds that after his ordeal he’s expected to return immediately to the front, where he’s promptly wounded rather bad. He and another of the boys is brought to a Catholic hospital, but things are just as dire here, and Paul almost succumbs to his wounds. He pulls through though, and is granted a furlough, letting him return home to his family for the first time since he’d enlisted. And, once there, he finds that his town, far from the actual horrors of the war, are still stuck in the glorious illusion that brought him to the war in the first place. He sees that same professor riling another group of boys enough to enlist, he sees the adults in the town telling him that the war is just a minor trifle, and not one to be worried about. No one cares about his experiences, and those who actually listen to him call him a coward for not facing the horrors of war like a man. Their sheltered lives are unable to comprehend the true nature of the war, and they all treat Paul like he’s insane, which makes his return to the war a tad easier. However, once he returns to the front he realizes that even more of his friends have died, and he even has to witness Katczinsky get killed by an artillery round. At this point Paul is practically the only one of his company still alive, and the realization that the world he’s fighting for doesn’t care about him and probably won’t accept him when he returns from the fight leaves him rather jaded. So, when he’s back on the front and hiding in a trench his eye is caught by the sight of a butterfly, surviving in the ugliness of the front. He reaches out for the butterfly, desperate for just a modicum of beauty in his existence, and leaves himself open for an enemy sniper, who kills Paul.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not an uplifting film. It actually can be a rather hard film to watch. Just like the book it’s based on, the film becomes an incredibly accurate representation of the horrors that the soldiers of World War I went through, showing us the horrific grind that the war really was, pulverizing the men who fought in it. And that horror is brought to the screen brilliantly. Lewis Milestone’s direction is truly wonderful, giving us a film that is simultaneously grand and personal. We’re shown massive battles, and the expansive carnage of the No Man’s Land, while also giving deep dives into the psyches of these men who are forced to survive this battle. I’m not familiar with Lew Ayers, the actor who portrayed Paul, but he gives a hell of a performance. The film really is an ensemble, and most of the actors did a fantastic job. But it was Ayers who shouldered the burden of the most screen-time, and the one who had to show the most conflict. His portrayal of Paul really shines in this film, giving us an audience surrogate who lets us experience the full gamut of emotions that a soldier would feel when placed in a situation like this. Not all of the actors really succeeded, and some seemed a tad too over-the-top, but I can more or less excuse that by the fact that this is such an early example of a film with sound, and the acting usually found in silent films can tend to run a little arch. But, other than that, this is a film that’s exceedingly well-crafted, and one that truly transports you to the hell that is war.
Because that’s something that we honestly don’t grapple with enough. These characters were young men, full of potential, and they were told that the best thing they could do for their futures would be to partake in a bit of glorious combat before becoming adults. And, almost all of them are brutally killed. They’d been convinced that war was a heroic and honorable thing, and when they were actually sent to the front they realized that they’d been tricked. War isn’t honorable. It’s hell. And that’s something that we just don’t seem to admit enough. War, sadly, doesn’t seem like something that we’re ever going to be able to give up as a species, but the idea that we continue to trick generation after generation of young people into thinking that it’s going to be a heroic and worthwhile venture is a little sickening. These character are essentially children, and they’re forced into a situation where they’re having to dodge death at every turn, and who are lucky to survive with their lives and psyches intact. Paul joined the army to do his part, to have an adventure, and instead he watched every one of his friends die, and got to see a glimpse of his life after the war where no one back home would know how to deal with him. The scenes where Paul are furloughed are honestly the most depressing of the entire film, showing us that the public at large has no idea what it’s like to be a soldier, and by continuing to ignore their feelings and thoughts about the topic we’re just dooming future generations to fall into the same pitfalls that they did. Erich Maria Remarque survived his war, and he used that gift to try and express to the world the miserable reality that war was. It wasn’t a story that glorified war, it exposed it. This is a story that gets more and more sad as time goes on, because it really does feel like everyone involved, both from the novel and film, expected this film to be a rallying cry to reality, a sign that we shouldn’t force our young men and women into situations like this ever again. And yet, that wasn’t the case. We continue to ignore the reality of war, we don’t take care of and listen to our veterans, and we continue to make the same mistakes.
All Quiet on the Western Front was written by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, and C Gardner Sullivan, directed by Lewis Milestone, and released by Universal Picture, 1930.
Categories: Cinematic Century