For some reason, my teacher showed “All Quiet on the Western Front” in class when I was in grade five. I haven’t the faintest idea why. In retrospect it seems odd to show a bunch of 10 year olds an old war movie from the 1930s. Maybe he had been a big movie buff. But I do remember not understanding pretty much anything going on in this film and riding the bus home with the impression that it was dreadfully boring. So it was with trepidation that I sat down to watch it again more than 20 years later, admittedly expecting another dreadfully boring experience. However, I’m pleased to report that it was a good reunion and that “All Quiet on the Western Front” is neither dreadful, nor boring. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Directed by Lewis Milestone (director of the original “Ocean’s 11”), and adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Director and Best Picture for 1929/1930. The film charts the course of Paul, played by Lew Ayres, and his apple-cheeked chums as they skip off to join the German army with notions of patriotic heroism orbiting their heads. They are quickly shipped off to the Western Front to fight the French, where reality soon catches up and has them competing with rats for moldy bread; struggling to maintain a tenuous grip on sanity; and watching the number of familiar faces gradually fade.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” holds up remarkably well under the weight generated by decades of time. Part of the film’s enduring strength is the presentation of its anti-war message through chronicling disillusionment and the destruction of a soul. When it comes to the ugly effects of war on individuals, this message is as resonant today as it was in 1930.
Also, I think when modern audiences watch this film, they feel that a lot of the themes still retain relevancy. For example, at one point a group of soldiers have forgotten the reason the war even started in the first place. Maybe it’s because the Kaiser had everything except for a war, suggests one of the soldiers. This notion that wars are started by leaders, but fought by the people is still a point that causes debates and protests decades later.
Apart from the coarse aesthetics, “All Quiet on the Western Front” retains power by knowing when to subscribe to the less-is-more approach to storytelling. Maybe it’s because I’m just coming off of the cheese-tray acting replete in “The Broadway Melody,” but the performances in “Front” felt refreshingly understated. Sure there was a scene here and there that delivered some hysteria, but most of the film’s running time featured low-key acting. To me, this made the film seem ahead of its time because one ingredient that makes me gag on a lot of early films is the over-acting.
The subtle style of the film isn’t contained within the performances along. Most of the film is devoid of any type of a score, which I didn’t even realize until most of the film had passed. But the lack of music created a sense of isolation and disconnect from normal life. Another example of a film that I think omits music to good effect is “Castaway.” For the most part, there are no tunes of any kind providing an overture to Tom Hanks’ exploits while on the island, which again contributes to a sense of loneliness and separation.
Apart from a minimal score, there are long stretches of the film that shelve dialogue altogether. (It made me wonder if Sofia Coppola took her writing cues from “All Quiet on the Western Front.”) This lack of conversation generated the same effects of despair and detachment because it leaves the viewer with little to focus on except the muddy surroundings of the bunker or the battlefield.
It would be interesting to know the history of the cast and crew on this film and whether any of them personally experienced World War I. Everyone who worked on this film probably lived through the war and were most likely affected by it to some degree. If this is true, then it would make sense that the production can lay claim to this unique credibility in presenting World War I with firsthand experience that is now obviously lost. No amount of research and attention to details is going to allow a modern cast and to recreate World War I with a set of burning memories and fresh wounds.
In its way then, “All Quiet on the Western” isn’t just worth watching because it’s a great film that strips away the myths and melodrama of war. It’s worth watching because it now doubles as historical artifact that captures and presents The Great War that can never be replicated again, presenting a truly distinct cinematic experience.
Favorite Line: This isn’t exactly a line from the movie; but the film’s opening title. However, I thought it succinctly summed up the film’s core theme. “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…”