Directed by Lewis Milestone
Starring Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray
Produced by Universal Pictures
In a small German town, people line the streets to cheer on soldiers heading off to fight the French during World War I. A teacher stands before his class as the sounds of the celebration waft through the room. He implores his boys and their de facto leader Paul to enlist and defend the Fatherland. And to a boy, they do.
Of course, once they join the army, every heroic illusion they have is shattered. Their kindly postman arrives as a reservist who is an overbearing dictator of a drill sergeant. They arrive at the front and find no food. They are given thankless tasks like stringing wire across the battlefield at night. Of course, those tasks seem like heaven compared to sitting in a trench, waiting for an errant grenade to find its target.
Fortunately, Paul and his friends are taken under the wing of Katz, a veteran who may show them how to survive a war. Who will live? Who will die? And how will the experience change their lives forever?
Sometimes, I have the sheer joy of watching a film that seems not just ahead of its time, but timeless.
All Quiet on the Western Front is an absolutely fantastic (anti-)war film from director Lewis Milestone. It tells the tale of a group of gung-ho but naive German teenagers who are all too quickly introduced to the horrors of war.
The film is cliched in its broadest strokes. You get the young idealistic soldier confronting the grizzled veteran who can only laugh at the youth he knows is about to either quickly grow up or die. You have the overbearing but clueless commanding officer. There's even that initial group of kids, small enough to be friends, but large enough that we know there will be a body count.
What elevates All Quiet on the Western Front above its tropes is its focus on smaller moments and details combined with Milestone's bravura direction.
There's an early tense scene with the troop assigned to sneak into the middle of the battlefield at night to string wire across it to slow the enemy's charge. I've seen that wire in dozens of other war films and never once considered how it got there or the danger its placement entailed.
The boys, led by Paul (played by Lew Ayres), learn to appreciate a good pair of boots, a stale heel of bread and even a poster of a girl (in the absence of the real thing). They encounter the insanity of both bayonet charges and cooks who refuse to feed them (because the chef had prepared dinner for 150 and only 80 returned from the lines).
The film features some of the best realized infantry battle sequences I've ever seen, but the one I want to highlight is a charge through a graveyard. As grenades rain down, headstones and even coffins become projectiles to be reckoned with. And when Paul ends up trapped between forces in a crater with a dying enemy soldier? Perfection.
I found myself constantly seeing other war films in the early entry in the genre. There is a prolonged battle sequence which had to (and I mean HAD TO) be an influence on Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan opening. And when Paul returns home from the war on leave and finds he can no longer relate to those he had left behind? I couldn't help but think of Jeremy Renner's The Hurt Locker character's problems with his home life.
More than anything though, All Quiet on the Western Front is about the relentlessness of war. What I remember most is the constancy of the gunfire and barrages. The sound never lets up. Every moment has an inherent tension: it may be our hero's last.
If there's a weakness here, it's Ayres as Paul. He is perfect early on as the young, clueless recruit sent into a war he cannot possibly comprehend. But his performance is so earnest throughout the film that when he starts describing the horrors he has encountered, you never totally buy it.
Fortunately, the film is so reliant on its ensemble that the weakness there is completely counterbalanced. All of the actors are great, but Louis Wolheim steals the movie as the wily veteran Katz. He is so fantastic as first Paul's mentor and then his friend, you want to just stay with him in every frame.
Also of note is Slim Summerville as Tjaden. He basically plays the comic relief role throughout with a presence and features that reminded me of Harry Dean Stanton.
By the time we reach the film's conclusion, there is an inevitability to what must happen. I'm not sure I totally buy the last frames, but there's no denying the juxtaposition of beauty and horror it represents.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not simply an anti-war film. It's THE anti-war film. We see the horror of battle and what it does to the children sent to fight and die. Men are valued until they are a corpse; after that, they are debris.
***** out of *****
NOTE: All Quiet on the Western Front won the 1930 Academy Award for Outstanding Production (today's Best Picture Oscar) and Best Direction.