The Good: Decent character development, Great themes
The Bad: Acting issues, Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: Dark and realistic, All Quiet On The Western Front is a realistic exploration of the horrors of World War I from a German perspective.
Since pretty much the moment my wife moved in with me (as my fiance for that whole month!), I was a bit distracted with many of my reviews and in the movie category, my productivity seriously dropped. For a while, the place fell down the most with my new movie reviews was with my Best Picture project. I screened the winners of the Best Picture Oscar and considered them in context (see link at bottom). So, before I take in another one, I figured it was a good time to get caught up on the old ones!
This put me in a decent position to consider the war epic All Quiet On The Western Front, one of the earliest Best Picture winners and one which is so relevant that a second remake was being produced with a 2009 or 2010 anticipated release date. There is something to say about going back and watching classic films because for all that people complain about the violence or gore in today's movies, one suspects they forget about such things as a pair of hands hanging from a barbed wire line after a shell blows their owners away; one of many memorable images from the 1930s film All Quiet On The Western Front!
After the professor of a German high school class whips his male student body into a jingoistic frenzy, the entire class rushes out to enlist in the German army for the love of the Fatherland. Paul Baumer and his classmates, Leer, Pete, Behn and Albert rush out to join the military and help take France for the love of their country. After a series of pranks after discovering their mailman Himmelstoss is one of the instructors at the academy, the boys head off to the front and while laying wire lines for the trenches that establish no-man's land, their numbers quickly diminish.
Soon, Baumer and the squad's leader Kat, find the war to be more tiresome than exciting. Accompanied by the remaining youth and a seasoned, lethargic Tjaden, Baumer survives shellings, starvation and encounters with local French woman who are willing to be seduced for bread. Baumer encounters all facets of the war, even returning home on leave to armchair warriors who see the war as far more winnable than those in the field do. As Baumer awakens to a world where he lacks context outside that of soldiering, the war turns against the Germans and the Western Front becomes increasingly dangerous.
All Quiet On The Western Front might well be one of the seminal war movies and because it was a pioneer in its field, it escapes the accusations that far too much of the film is cliche. After all, soldier's feeling like all they could do is be soldiers is established in this film more than being a concept that is done to death in endless rehashings of war films. This is a long movie and while it establishes many great conceits for war movies, it is hardly flawless. So, for example, while it has a decent theme, it pretty much beats that theme to death constantly.
As a result, All Quiet On The Western Front is repetitive in a tiresome way. Training maneuvers, for example, are repeated illustrating clearly the growth of the soldiers over and over and over again. Here is where montage compilations have definitely improved the pace of many modern movies. Similarly, after the soldiers have been starved for some time, they are fed with double rations. Each and every surviving character at that point in the film is showed gorging themselves. By the third soldier shoving spoonfuls of beans into their mouths, even the dimmest viewer gets it. By the seventh, even the dimmest viewer is tired of it and asking "what next?!"
But largely, there is much to applaud with All Quiet On The Western Front and much to justify the expense and effort that went into restoring this film, despite its flaws. Throughout the film, for example, there is the motif of scavenging - most obviously portrayed with Kemmerich's boots. Kemmerich is a soldier who is given a pair of truly fine boots at the outset of the war and upon his death and subsequent battles, the boots make the rounds pretty regularly.
Paul's journey through All Quiet On The Western Front is essentially the essential Modernist journey. Paul encounters many of the trappings of the Edwardian period which preceded it - "It is a good and glorious thing to die for one's country" - along with the symbols of the Modern age that cut through such rhetoric: armchair warriors back home, machine guns in the field, loosening of sexual mores and the overall sense of futility and nihilism. As well, in one of the final scenes, Paul has a chance to return to the school where he and his classmates were recruited for the war and tell off his former teacher. That sense of the younger generation defying the older one was also very much a Modernist conceit.
And while the journey is almost entirely focused on Paul - rather than the entire Second Company - Kat is an equally memorable character. Played by Louis Wolheim, Kat is acerbic, seasoned and the voice Paul does not know at the outset he might come to possess. Kat easily represents the early dawning of experiences that made the Modernist movement possible; there were enough soldiers early in World War I who realized that they were fighting a new type of warfare to keep the green intellectuals alive long enough to write about it and spread the word.
Wolheim plays Kat brilliantly, laughing through the horrors with quips and playing the role with a sense of weariness that indicates he has been in the trenches far longer than anyone else. That an actor might be able to keep up the pretense consistently of being tired of the surroundings and yet keenly knowledgeable of them is decent acting.
But much of the film belongs to Lew Ayres, who plays Baumer. Ayres is given a character with an emotional journey and he gets into it with his full body. Thus, in early scenes, he stands tall and erect, eyes eager. As the movie progresses, he slouches and his eyes become worried and more dead. The thing is, he keeps the sense of being beaten down consistent in the later scenes, wonderfully portraying the constant drag of warfare on his character's soul.
Directed by Louis Milestone, All Quiet On The Western Front is a big (and long!) film that deserves many of its accolades, even though it might appear dated today. Milestone does a great job of balancing giant battle scenes with more intimate personal ones. Ironically, there is more affection expressed in this old film between the male characters than in most films now. On DVD, the film has been restored and looks remarkably good, with few skips or scratches. This is a worthwhile film for anyone who loves great drama.
For other movies with combat situations, please check out my takes on:
The Men Who Stare At Goats
The Clone Wars
This film is part of my "Best Picture" project, which is available by clicking here!
For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.