All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Lots of movies make a play at an “antiwar” message, usually struggling under the contradictory weight of honoring those who serve, not trivializing their sacrifices, and maintaining an even-handed, typically bloodless political conscience. A popular example is the liberal prestige picture Coming Home, Hal Ashby’s 1978 Jane Fonda-Jon Voight vehicle that ends with Voight as a paralyzed vietnam veteran, in one of the finest and least guarded moments of his career, lecturing a gymnasium full of high schoolers as a contrast to a military recruiter. He doesn’t sentimentalize his message, just puts it straight: “I’m telling you it ain’t like it is in the movies. That’s all I want to tell you, because I didn’t have a choice. When I was your age, all I got was some guy standing up like that, man, giving me a lot of bullshit, man, which I caught. I was really in good shape then, man. I was captain of the football team. And I wanted to be a war hero, man, I wanted to go out and kill for my country. And now, I’m here to tell you that I have killed for my country or whatever. And I don’t feel good about it. Because there’s not enough reason, man, to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away. I’m here to tell you, it’s a lousy thing, man. I don’t see any reason for it. And there’s a lot of shit that I did over there that I find fucking hard to live with. And I don’t want to see people like you, man, coming back and having to face the rest of your lives with that kind of shit. It’s as simple as that. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m a lot fucking smarter now than when I went. And I’m just telling you that there’s a choice to be made here.”
We didn’t have a draft, of course, when I was coming up, but we did have military recruiters in high school — the ones that call you on your home phone and corner you in Best Buy — and I had a history teacher in eighth grade who warned us about them. She’d lost a close family member in Vietnam and wanted us to fully grasp the concept of what war is and what it does, quite apart from our patriotic and intellectual conceptions of it. This was 1997, but it turned out to be a prophetic lesson; we’d all be propelled out of peace in four years’ time. Her method of making all this clear to us was to screen Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, almost unquestionably the best war film ever made, the first truly great American sound film, and still a masterpiece that seems to be ageless — you needn’t make any apologies for it, none at all, to render it a relevant reflection of our time as well as it was of the time it was made and the time it depicts. In fact, it’s such a sobering, heartbreaking, brilliant-beyond-words movie it still wrecks one’s standards for film in general. You start to wonder why, if someone could do this in 1930, no one else has even approached it in the eighty-two years since. And at the time I initially saw it, it rocked me, permanently impacted my perception of the nature and cost of battle, the inherent lie of all glamorous war films — I cannot speak for any of my classmates, but I know that I never forgot the film, and on seeing it again nearly a decade later, was stunned to realize that I recalled every scene in detail.
Erich Maria Remarque was a German WWI vet whose novel, a searing antiwar masterpiece, had been published just a year earlier. Universal took a hell of a gamble on believing it would work, undoubtedly the sort of artistically-minded business decision that would leave them on the border of Poverty Row for the next two decades, but in this case — fraught early Depression economy and all — the work paid off. Remarque’s novel isn’t the sort of fodder you’d expect to excite a Hollywood studio; frenetic and episodic, the bleary-eyed and passionate work follows a painfully young soldier, recruited along with a group of friends via fiery classroom political rants about “our boys” and such, who finds the realities of war and military life — the constant danger and threat and futility, with mindnumbing boredom in between, all with life itself constantly hanging by a thread — and ages by years by the time he visits home to discover he’s permanently out of sync with day-to-day existence, disgusted by armchair co-opting by jingoistic men of the war effort and by the way all beauty seems to have now washed away from everything. Impressively, the film retains this structure, and its pessimistic sense of life’s tenuous cheapness in a world that allows ideological murder, enough of it to wipe out and scar much of a generation. The contrast of this to the first Best Picture winner, Wings, is stark — despite that film’s awareness of the hazards and horrors of war, it is still a one-dimensional celebration of macho victory, one that pretends a return to civilian life, after killing untold numbers of people and narrowly escaping death again and again, is just a matter of saying your hellos and tossing off your kisses.
All Quiet director Lewis Milestone is one of the great tragedies of Hollywood; this film proves he was a master who may well have become one of the luminaries of classic Hollywood cinema, but like so many other gifted men he was blacklisted during the McCarthyist witch hunts, robbing him of the chance; he spent most of his final active years stuck directing TV shows. For this film alone, though, his legacy as a cultural touchstone was assured — without diluting or compromising Remarque’s book, the film shows an intuitive knack for what was essentially a form of storytelling (sound cinema) in its infancy. Astonishingly making California backlots a convincing stand-in for the trenches of Europe in the Great War — their detail is so harsh and severe you simply cannot believe much of the time that you’re not watching a documentary — he abandons music scoring altogether and strips the war of all heroism and politics, battles unnamed and loyalties ambiguous. He sees these characters as not soldiers but men, showing with the energetic and ugly cinematic gusto of a field photographer the unmitigated horror of battle. The film’s violent in a sense that always hurts, always inspires fear; it’s never once cathartic.
Like a number of prestige pictures of this period, some good and some not, All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t really a linear story; it periodically falls back to central figure Paul Bäumer, the babyfaced and torn-apart schoolkid forced to grow up all too quickly, but otherwise calmly and elegantly glides across characters in sequences as often startling in their effortless humanism as they are harrowing. There are too many unforgettable pieces to properly pare down, their empathy and irony consistently intelligent and somber: the harrowing hours spent in a trench constantly under fire as the stoic machismo vanishes from the boys’ faces; the distressing sequence involving a pair of boots being passed from one doomed soldier to another; the rhythmic machine gun fire laying waste to the bloodless killing of so many action-packed war films; Paul’s late-night conversation with a warm-hearted French girl, played perfectly from a room beyond; the final loving meeting between Paul and mentor Kat before the latter is abruptly killed while being held by his friend; the agonizing scene in which Paul’s forced to share space for a night with a man he’s just mortally wounded, the dying soldier’s eyes among the most traumatically haunting images in cinema; the beautifully written discussion between the German soldiers wherein they wonder why exactly they’re fighting, and for whom; Paul’s bitter speech to his former teacher and the enraged students being riled up again, a tremendous antecedent to the famed Coming Home scene; and inevitably, the final message of waste that closes the film — the reach for the butterfly, the montage of graves and young faces.
Unlike a lot of films that run from one situation to another to operate from a thesis rather than a specific plotline, All Quiet is unsparing in the depth of its characterization — these young men are all real to us, and each loss is one we grieve until we no longer have even the time; we’re simply overwhelmed by death, in much the way one imagines Paul himself is. He’s underplayed with emotion and complexity by Lew Ayres, later a box office draw as Dr. Kildare until the pacifist radicalism that he credited as an inheritance from this project landed him in deep shit with the Hollywood establishment. Like director Milestone, he’d live long enough to see All Quiet‘s legacy sealed beyond all other Hollywood productions of its period; the same sadly can’t be said of Louis Wolheim, unforgettable as the good-natured Katcinsky, who becomes close to Paul and looks out for the younger members of the company, assuring them early on that they’ll have “clean underwear.” Wolheim died just a year later of stomach cancer. And what of Ben Alexander, the boy whose tortured face is burned in your mind forever — he can’t take the noise in the trenches, the explosions you the viewer will hear in your sleep for several nights, and tries blindly to run off; it ends up killing him, his legs have to be amputated, and he’s in horrible disbelief when someone insensitively points it out to him. Alexander has the face, the shattered innocence, that will rock you to the core most of all; it’s the image simultaneously of what war can do to a human being and what film acting is capable of capturing at his absolute best. In a career that would stretch almost to the ’60s, Alexander would never do anything remotely as well-remembered, but he wouldn’t have to. Along with the other excellent characterizations and flawless performances, his is the illustration of a miracle: that a Hollywood film would so nonchalantly portray the Germans, “the enemy” of just a decade prior as purely human, no kind of an “other,” just kids — people.
That alone elevates this above decades of war cinema hence, including the ballyhooed “realism” of material like Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker that still muddies up the basic truth and unpolished sincerity at the heart of All Quiet: whatever its causes and repercussions, even sound justifications, war itself is such an evil and wasteful business. The film is profound and mature in its simplicity, never striking a false note. Hollywood now couldn’t compare, nor could the Hollywood of just a few years later when the Hays code would render an uncompromising project like this impossible to release — the bloody violence and the unfussiness of the underlying moral ideas can make you wonder how much an alternate Hollywood history might have looked with this level of freedom. But not everyone is an artist on the level of Lewis Milestone, and not every story has this stinging honesty and elegance. It’s generally flighty and lazy to declare a piece of art or pop culture actually “important,” indeed insulting to the normal utility of art itself, but there’s no doubt that if any film deserves such a superlative, it’s this one. And if a film has never ever made you cry in your life, this one will.