A film that simply will not let you miss its message, All Quiet on the Western Front was the flip side of Carl Laemmle Jr’s effort to transform the movie studio his father gifted him, the other being the early monster movies Dracula and Frankenstein. Those were handsome, expensive literary adaptations designed to bring prestige and change how Universal Pictures did business from its earlier, cheaper roots. Taking the novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque and staging it in grand fashion under the direction of Lewis Milestone, a talented workhorse from the silent era, Laemmle Jr. ushered in an adaptation with little subtlety but often great power at the same time.
Paul (Lew Ayres) is a poetic youth still attending school in the early days of The Great War where his teacher Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) gives an impassioned speech about how young men are meant to serve and even die for their fatherland. It incites the boys in the class to sign up for the army en masse, and they are quickly introduced to the Prussian way of things in the military with their former mailman, Himmelstoss (John Wray), who is now a corporal, gleefully abusing them and needlessly making their lives miserable, such as forcing them to crawl through mud right before they’re to be let go on leave, forcing them to cancel their evenings in order to wash their uniforms instead. Still, it’s just training. It’s not the glories of battle, and their wide-eyed optimism towards their futures are undimmed.
From the opening frames, it’s obvious that we’re in the hands of a talented visual filmmaker who really learned a lot about visual storytelling in the silent era. From the elegant pull-in camera motion that starts on the street parade and moves into the classroom, keeping both foreground and background lit and in focus (something that von Stroheim was very proud of having achieved during the wedding scene in Greed) to the deep look at a line of German soldiers marching from the train station up a hill towards the front, the film is often very simply gorgeous to look at. Using a lot of framing devices like doors and windows, Milestone and his cinematographer Arthur Edeson really highlighted images with heavy shadows and strong compositions to give the film a visual pop that still pops more than ninety years later.
The centerpiece of the whole film is the first battle that the boys find themselves in, and it is simply remarkable. Covering a charge, a retreat, a counterattack, and one final retreat, the motion and carnage of battle is clear and precise. It’s harrowing, especially in conjunction with the preceding scene where the men are worn down psychologically over the course of a week of bombing. The only relief from that is battle itself, and the battle is simply iron, blood, and death, incredibly captured on screen. This portrait of battle is the film at its strongest.
Where the film is almost as strong is in the relationships that sprout up in war. Most of the boys that Paul goes to war with are quickly dispatched through combat, though we do get a few good death scenes like with Kemmerich (Ben Alexander) who dies after having a leg amputated, but the main relationships are between Paul and two older soldiers, Kat (Louis Wolheim) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville). Tjaden is something of a comic relief, especially in a scene where the men try to figure out why the war was fought in the first place, pretending a common link with the Kaiser, but Kat ends up being the core relationship of the film. Paul’s attachment to Kat is key to the Paul’s emotional journey with Kat becoming a father figure to the young man.
The film becomes frustrating to me in its heavy-handed manner in delivering its message that war is hell. Things like a cook refusing to give men the full rations he made because too many of them died in battle, or Professor Kantorek in general (especially his reprise when Paul goes home briefly) leave nothing to the imagination about what this film is trying to say, and it descends into polemic here and there, eschewing drama. Relegating this sort of thing to the very beginning of the film and just letting Paul’s journey explain itself would have helped, I think. Also, I get the sense that the reality of life in the German trenches had been pushed away from the truth, with the trenches reflecting the reality of French and English trenches better than the more well equipped and built German trenches.
The diffusive nature of the storytelling, especially with Paul being largely one of several faces for about the first half of the film, dilutes some of its emotional power as well. Pushing him more towards the front and highlighting him by differentiating him visually a bit more through boot camp, I think, might have been an improvement. I think we really needed to latch to him from early on so that his eventual confrontation with the Frenchman he kills in the crater is more of a direct rejection of the lessons he ate up as a child from Professor Kantorek.
Still, there’s no denying the technical skill of the production, especially in its two battles. As the film goes into its final act, especially from the leave at home moments onward (my only problem with this stage is the reappearance of Kantorek, though I get why he’s there) is clear-eyed and focused. It’s the culmination of the degradation of a child who has to grow up into a man in the greatest meat grinder in human history, losing everything, perhaps even the will to live.
I suspect a lot of my issues with the film are adaptation related in taking a first-person perspective novel with a lot of internal dialogue and translating that to the screen, favoring external action rather than internal conflict. That pushes the attention from the main character to the others, and since so many of the others end up dying early, that robs the actual main character of early focus. And, of course, you can’t miss the message because if you miss the message than you might misinterpret the message and we can’t have that. There’s no room for subtlety in art, I guess.
I greatly admire the film. I think it could have been improved with a slightly tighter edit that removed some of my concerns, and there’s real emotional power in the ending, just not as much as I think the story deserved. The double-exposed image of the young boys walking to war with the field of crosses is great, especially with Paul’s face being first and disappearing into the masses to be replaced by others. It’s a quality film, for sure.
3 thoughts on “All Quiet on the Western Front”
It’s a powerhouse of a film. Unsubtle, yes. And I’m not a huge fan of polemics in general. Though if any war needs some strong bad mouthing, WW 1 is the poster child. But, in a way, it’s not following all the Hollywood tropes as much as the WW 2 movies to come will embrace. It’s grim, unfair, harrowing and in that way, it comes closer to the truth of war (especially WW 1) than the technicolor ‘band of ethnic tropes’ we’ll be seeing later.
The Eastern Front would be interesting to see, in film. It was a very different war and one where Germany had a lot more success. But it’s only battles that involve the French and English that Europeans want to see, I guess.
This movie is so German and so critical of the German war, it was banned in German. Which is very German.
It’s also interesting to see it so soon after Wings, which was purely American and all gung-ho about the war. It was an adventure with peril, not a meatgrinder. A real lens into the major differences of experience. And then you compare it to The Dawn Patrol, and you have American characters that are facing death everyday head-on and feeling the grind. Both Wellman and Hawks had some indirect experience in flying combat, so that comparison is interesting as well.
Man, don’t you know that WWI was just trenches in France? And then some stuff about a desert with a guy in flowing white robes? There was nothing else. This World War was just in France.