Stars: Louis Wolheim and Lewis Ayres
|I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.|
A few of the films I've watched as part of my trek through the IMDb Top 250 have been spoiled for me by one major flaw that I couldn't ignore, and here's another one. When I watched Gone with the Wind, I found that I couldn't care about a single character. When I watched North By Northwest, I cared about the lead character but couldn't believe in him. When I watched All Quiet on the Western Front, I cared about most of the characters, who are painfully human in a highly inhuman environment, but none of them are believable in the slightest in the roles they are given for one very simple reason: they're supposed to be Germans but they're all as American as American could be, at least once we leave the Teutonic town for the generic classroom and then on to the generic battlefield.
The story, based on the wildly popular bestseller by Erich Maria Remarque that racked up two and a half million sales in its first eighteen months in print, follows an entire class of young Germans who sign up en masse to fight for the fatherland in the First World War, as prompted by their teacher, Prof Kantorek. However, just as they discover that war is nothing at all like their teacher had led them to believe, we discover that the German army is nothing at all like we had been led to believe. If All Quiet on the Western Front is anything to go by, Germans look like Americans, sound like Americans and act like Americans. By the time the cast had reached the western front, which is far from quiet, I'd entirely forgotten that I was watching the German army at all and it took me some time to realise that I wasn't watching New York fighting New Jersey.
There really is no excuse for this. During the First World War, legendary director Erich von Stroheim found great success as a Hollywood actor playing no end of German officers, and that war ended twelve years before this film was made. He was far from the only German actor in Hollywood in 1930 and in fact director Lewis Milestone cast many actual German veterans as officers, but they aren't the ones who talk. What's more, George Cukor, about to become a director in his own right, was hired as a dialogue coach to lessen the regional accents of the actors so that the characters could be more generic and thus identifiable to more moviegoers. Perhaps this is the only valid reason for such behaviour: to portray these soldiers not as Germans but as Everyman. To my mind, the German equivalent, G W Pabst's film Westfront 1918, made the same year of 1930, is even better because it succeeds at all the same things but doesn't fail at making the Germans be believable Germans.
All Quiet on the Western Front was a pre-code film, released in the early days of sound when the Hays Code on moral conduct was in place but not enforced. America was a highly pacifist nation in 1930, a time when over 70% of the population believed that it had been wrong to enter what became known as World War I, and the film has a pacifist message. The introduction suggests that it aims neither to be an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, simply trying to tell of a lost generation. On its initial release, the review in Variety suggested that 'the League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word 'war' is taken out of the dictionaries.'
Only in the pre-code era could a film like this be made in the States, that dares to treat the enemy with sympathy and understanding, while also slipping in snippets of male nudity and a number of gruesome death scenes. While those elements would be barred after the code became enforced in 1934, there is simply no way that Americans would have stood for a sympathetic portrayal of Nazis after World War II, or the Vietnamese or Koreans or Iraqis after other conflicts that involved their country's troops. Yet in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front wasn't just tolerated, it was a huge critical and commercial success that went on to receive both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for that year.
Outside this one major flaw, I was very much surprised by how much I enjoyed All Quiet on the Western Front. Of all the films that added up over time on my DVR for this journey through the IMDb Top 250, this one stayed there the longest before my better half and I finally bit the bullet and decided to watch it. It just didn't seem appealing. Neither of us had seen it before and all we expected was an old black and white film that would depress us about the horrors of war. It was made in 1930, very early days for sound, so it was likely to feature silent stars overacting because they hadn't got used to sound technology yet and we wouldn't be able to hear them too well because of the technical issues that plagued that era. It was so easy to leave it for later and watch something else in the meantime.
Lew Ayres is the lead, playing a young German named Paul Bäumer, and he has more heart and compassion than most. This was very early in his career, given that he made it as far as Battlestar Galactica and Damien: Omen II and beyond. Unlike most arrivals in Hollywood around this time, he got to appear in a couple of silents, including The Kiss, Greta Garbo's last silent movie, but this was where he made his presence known. Later the same year he'd lead the cast in The Doorway to Hell, only to be outshone by a supporting actor, James Cagney. Ayres was a memorable actor who only grew better with age, finding his real stride at the end of the thirties in films like Holiday and a long string of movies as Dr Kildare.
Here he's a fresh faced youngster who epitomises the point of the story. Bäumer enlists only because his Prof Kantorek has thrust blind nationalism down his and his classmates' throats until they would almost believe that black is white and it's Kantorek who's the real villain of the piece. This seems a little strange, given that most war films I've seen have easily defined enemies. The good guys fight the bad guys and while we may not cheer for the one and hiss at the other, the principle isn't far off. On occasion the enemy is war itself. Yet here the real enemies are the figures of authority who may not have started the war, but continue to feed it: Kantorek the teacher who glorifies war to children, Himmelstoß the postman who trains the recruits to be soldiers but doesn't prepare them for the reality of what they'll face, and the elders back home who Bäumer encounters on leave who have no clue what war is really like and exhort him to go on alone and take Paris by himself.
These scenes when he goes home on leave are the most powerful for me. When he visits his old school, the very same teacher who persuaded him to sign up is busy at it again with even younger children. Prof Kantorek exhorts Bäumer to help him in what seems to him to be an almost holy task, but he simply can't do it. Instead he tells them, 'It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?' However the children are brainwashed enough already for them to see him as nothing but a coward, and Bäumer heads back to the front early, unable to exist anywhere else now.
Ayres is good but obviously still inexperienced. He gets many of the best scenes, including a notable one where he gets stuck in a foxhole for an entire night, talking to the corpse of a French soldier that he has killed. However Louis Wolheim is better as the canny old veteran Kat Katczinsky who has an uncanny knack for finding food and staying alive. It's Kat who teaches these kids how to survive at the hard edge of battle and he's possibly the only German at the front who could almost be taken for a German, given that his wonderfully battered mug is half Brooklyn prizefighter and half Nazi stormtrooper, with maybe a bit of Jason Statham in there too if you can imagine him in twenty years time after being battered so often that he could never be a male model again.
Backing them Ayres and Wolheim are so many young actors playing so many young soldiers that it's nigh on impossible to keep track of who's who, but there are memorable scenes for some of them. One is blinded during a trip out into no man's land to lay wire and runs out into a bullet, while another goes stir crazy staying in a bunker under fire. By the time we hit the first extended battle scene, we can't even keep track of which side is which except by following the spikes on some of the helmets, let alone the soldiers taking part. It's a long and powerful sequence with some surprising imagery, one quick shot of some wire just above the German trench having a pair of severed hands attached to it.
Mostly though there are explosions, enough to satisfy a Michael Bay fan if they can deal with actual people instead of just giant robots, and the sounds of warfare feel uncomfortably close. There's an omnipresent rumble of distant explosions with the accompanying whizzing of artillery shells to keep it varied. This is the soundtrack, as Lewis Milestone deliberately avoided the use of a score as it would have detracted from the impact of the story. He shouldn't have worried unduly because there may be even more impact here than was intended. Many times we can't help but wonder if the actors hadn't strayed a little too close to the bombs because it gets dangerously uncomfortable on more than a few occasions.
The cinematography is spectacular, especially in these battle scenes that featured a couple of thousand extras and which saw acres of California ranch land echo with some truly awesome explosions. The script is sharp and intelligent and always engrossing. I admire the subtle way that certain devices were subtly worked in as recurring themes, such as Kemmerich's boots. Kemmerich is one of Bäumer's young comrades who was passed down a pair of quality boots through his family. As he dies he gives them to a colleague, and we soon realise that deaths are piling upon deaths merely by watching these familiar boots being worn by a neverending succession of new soldiers in a stunning montage.
Above all though the biggest star is the message, that plea for pacifism that rang so true in the pre-code era but was soon censored out of existence. When it came to later wars, the media had discarded All Quiet on the Western Front and so became Prof Kantorek instead of Paul Bäumer. Times had changed and so had the feelings that went with those times. In fact when World War II rolled around Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector, in part because of his experience in making this film, and his movies were promptly banned in a number of places in response. Of course the Nazis banned it everywhere for being anti-German, at least once they gained power. Before that they just released rats or stinkbombs into the theatres. Bizarrely the Poles banned it for being pro-German. Fortunately for us the film hasn't changed and its message becomes all the more effective because of what the intervening time has brought. That's an amazing feat for a film that's now eighty years old.