Thursday 11 March 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone
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.

Happily most of these expectations proved to be entirely wrong, and even though the actors aren't believable in the slightest as Germans, they are very believable as naïve soldiers. We suffer with them as they go so quickly from the schoolroom to the battlefield and they teach us not just about the horrors of war but the fundamental pointlessness of it as well. What's more, they don't depress us too much in the process because there are light hearted moments too that ease the weight of the film's message. Even as Prof Kantorek exhorts his students to enlist, suggesting to them in Latin that 'sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland,' he calls them 'the iron men of Germany' while they sit there chewing pencils and dreaming of girls. Their drill sergeant at training camp is Himmelstoß, their old postman, who delights in making them hit the mud, and they get a suitable revenge on him.

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.

I didn't know Wolheim before seeing this film in 2004, which is possibly his best known, but I've become a big fan over the years since. He didn't make a lot of sound films, given that he died in early 1931, but his credits date back to 1914 and he's memorable in everything he appeared in, from small roles in early twenties movies like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Orphans of the Storm and Sherlock Holmes to more prominent parts in later silents like Two Arabian Knights, Tempest and The Racket. He doesn't get as much screen time as Ayres here but he owns every scene he's in, a powerful presence to the younger soldiers around him and a powerful presence to us.

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.


serendipity w. relative mediocrity said...

Hal, how about doing reveiws of Elim Klimovs "COME AND SEE" (1985) and Sam peckinpahs "CROSS OF IRON" (1977), not only the two greatest war films ever made but also two of the most astonishing towering masterworks of world cinema. What i like about them is that they tell the truth with regards to what the human race is really all about as opposed to the lies and hypocrisy of hollywood and the media in general.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Good suggestions.

I'll review Come and See in 2011 as part of my follow up to this year's run through the IMDb Top 250 of those films that became Top 250 movies after I grabbed my static copy of the list in 2004.

I'd love to review Cross of Iron too, along with the rest of Peckinpah's films. I'll probably work through Sam Fuller's first though, and a number are already here, such as The Steel Helmet. For a more recent war movie that is 'opposed to the lies and hypocrisy of Hollywood and the media in general,' you may enjoy my review of No Man's Land.

serendipity w. relative mediocrity said...

Why not start with two of their oddest and most edgy cult items, Peckinpahs irritating "BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA" (1974) and Fullers even more irritating "WHITE DOG" (1982).

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I watched a few Peckinpahs, including Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in the few years before I began writing reviews, so only Major Dundee is here at present.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a lesser film than Ride the High Country or Straw Dogs, but it's more fascinating. It's a magnetic piece of filmmaking that constantly asks us why because it isn't even remotely conventional. It helps that Warren Oates, who is always amazing, is basically the entire film.

I haven't seen White Dog yet but I know about it. Fuller had a habit of touching on taboo subjects in ways that nobody else would dream of doing. I haven't seen Shock Corridor yet either but only a few of my Fullers predate this blog (Run of the Arrow, Pickup on South Street and The Naked Kiss) and I'm gradually catching up. Here are reviews to I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, The Steel Helmet, Park Row, House of Bamboo, The Crimson Kimono and Underworld USA.

serendipity w. relative mediocrity said...

When i watch "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia" i always get the strange sensation that i`m watching the greatest film ever made and the worst film ever made at the same time, as i say its a very odd sensation and one that i`ve yet to experience with any other film. I do think its a much better film than either "Ride The High Country" or "Straw Dogs" which i think are both very over-rated movies. By the way, i`ve always thought "Shock Corridor" was a tad over-rated as well, if you want to see the greatest film ever made on the subject of mental illness just watch John Carpenters ludicrously under-rated 1995 masterwork (and yes i most certainly do mean "MASTERWORK") "IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS".

Hal C. F. Astell said...

It's been a long while since I've seen In the Mouth of Madness. I'll certainly do a Carpenter run at some point but probably not this year.

The next film on mental illness I'll probably review is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because that'll get caught up in Cinematic Heaven as it's IMDb Top 250.

serendipity w. relative mediocrity said...

So many of Carpenters films have a marvellous re-watchability factor to them. The only other directors who seemed to imbue their films with that same magical re-watchability value were "William (House On Haunted Hill) Castle" and "Roger (The Fall of The House Of Usher) Corman", I`ve seen many of those three directors films literally hundreds of times, where-as (just to make a quick and obvious comparison) i`ve never been able to watch any of Quentin Tarantinos movies in their entirety even once because they are all so laughably and ludicrously over-rated (and in an odd kind of way strangely out-moded as well).

Hal C. F. Astell said...

The only downside to a run through John Carpenter's filmography is that I'll have to watch Escape from LA again. I so didn't like that film, such an unworthy sequel in so many ways.

Corman and Castle are favourites. There are many of both already here at Apocalypse Later, 7 Cormans and 19 Castles. In fact I only posted a review of Shanks, Castle's final film, yesterday. I'll be reviewing Masterson of Kansas shortly too, but of course that's a western not a horror film.

Time will tell how much Tarantino dates. I am a fan but I'm no fanboy. Pulp Fiction left me pretty dry and I haven't watched most of the more recent ones yet. They'll come later in the year as part of my IMDb Top 250 project. He may well date the way someone like Seijin Suzuki dates, still enjoyable decades later but very much a product of the time. By comparison Castle and Corman are mostly timeless.

serendipity w. relative mediocrity said...

Its odd but i`m one of the few people who thinks that "ESCAPE FROM L.A." is a ludicrously under-rated movie and actually better than "ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK". "GHOSTS OF MARS" (dismissed very unfairly as garbage by a lot of reveiwers) is a film that i like more and more every time i see it, that old Carpenter cult magic seems to be there again.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I haven't seen Ghosts of Mars yet so can't comment on that one, but I found Escape from LA painful. It's the only one out of twelve that I've seen that was anything less than a good movie and I felt it was an actively bad movie.

I'm no anti-sequel fanatic but I do expect something for a sequel that either extends the original or at least preserves the feel of it so we can just enjoy another hour and a half.

I could watch Trancers movies all night, for instance, even though none really touch the first. The longer Escape from LA ran on, the more I wanted to switch it off and watch Escape from New York instead.

DS said...

'All Quiet' is a great film but yes the accents aren't convincing and the cat character reminds me of Animal in 'Stalag 17'. 'Paths of Glory' is only let down by the absoluetly attrocious accents, it's a great film but come on, it doesn't sound convincing at all.