All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Release Date: August 24th, 1930 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Lewis Milestone Actors: Lewis Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Slim Summerville
his story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure … ” Although the film claims not to be specifically anti-war, it’s difficult not to compare the bitter, realistic take on disillusionment with death and warfare against the fast-paced, high-octane endeavors of John Wayne or Steve McQueen in their equivalent war pictures; this is definitely not a patriotic actioner. In its efforts to show armed conflict for the dismal, catastrophic event that it is, “All Quiet on the Western Front” surely takes a stand, rather than chronicling impartiality as it asserts.
The Fatherland needs leaders! Personal ambitions must be thrown aside for the glory of the country. Paul Baumer (Lewis Ayres) is the leader of his class of young men; so when he chauvinistically announces that he will join the military, the entire group follows suit, cheerily marching out of the classroom to enlist. Once they’re all in the barracks, drill Sergeant Himmelstoss (John Wray) barks orders and demands respect. The new recruits are brash and undisciplined, but he’s the right man to whip them into shape for the looming atrocities of World War I.
“The first thing to do is to forget everything you ever knew! Everything you ever learned!” Himmelstoss is the original cantankerous, verbally abusive boot camp instructor, lending most assuredly to Stanley Kubrick’s famous incarnation from “Full Metal Jacket” (R. Lee Ermey playing Sergeant Hartman). Himmelstoss’ language isn’t nearly as colorful, but his ferocity is unmistakably the same. And here, there’s also a form of revenge against the commanding officer, though it’s portrayed as something far more playful and mischievous than in Kubrick’s exposé.
The front is full of scares, from the claustrophobic trenches and dugouts to the continual shelling to the lack of food (they must fight against rats just to keep the scraps they can scavenge). Several men can’t take the psychological stresses, preferring to bound into the line of fire rather than to ponder being buried alive. For a film from 1930, there’s a considerable amount of violence (including a man who gets shrapnel in his eyes and the severed hands of a man who was once clinging to barbed wire), and some stunning photography of large scale skirmishes, explosive bombardments, and bayonet charges. The recreations of trench warfare are spectacular and haunting. Even a few background sequences are particularly potent, such as a man cutting the bloodied portion of a loaf of bread away before devouring it, and when Paul despondently carries away his pal Franz’ fine leather boots after an unrecoverable amputation (complemented by a following shot in which the boots’ new owner loses his own need for them).
As the film works to unveil the tragedies of war, regardless of the side or allegiances or country, it’s interesting to note that the protagonists are German schoolboys-turned-soldiers, though they speak English for the sake of American audiences. This is in favor of the picture’s universal message about war, particularly as the further real-life conflicts with Germany on the world stage (leading up to and during WWII) find the Germans as the antagonists more often than not. But the pride and honor of youths patriotically enlisting, only to be greeted by the sheer look of terror on the faces of their parents, who realize that their sons are going off to their deaths, is an idea that can be understood by all. Killing, too, is a notion that nobody welcomes; death is unpleasant even when it’s for the sake of victory (or, more specifically, blindly following orders). And victory is an accomplishment full of complexities, compensatory losses, and varying interpretations.
Every aspect of warfare is covered somewhere along the lines in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Mental health issues, court-martials, cowardice, thoughts about what soldiers might do for careers after the war (and that death is stronger than duty), reassimilating into society, leave to reunite with family (“Somehow, I don’t seem to know you,” whimpers Paul’s mother), and conversations with outsiders who know nothing of what goes on in the battlefield (“The best for our soldiers!” is an erroneous motto) are all individually examined. Additionally, Paul struggles with the guilt of knifing an enemy combatant by attempting to help the man, who takes an excruciating amount of time to die (and who serves as a silent comrade to listen to Paul’s anguished apologies). Reasoning with oneself when it comes to killing just might be the greatest contest of all. And as the troops make their way into towns, there’s even time for brief revelry and interactions with women. Essentially, every war movie made after “All Quiet on the Western Front” owes something to this film’s comprehensiveness.
Some moments are heavy-handed or exaggerated (notably when Paul says out loud the commentary that director Lewis Milestone wishes to impart), with a bit of the dialogue serving as repetitious anti-war declarations, but there’s a well-roundedness to the film in its actions and structuring. Toward the conclusion, there’s a clever trick in which both Paul and fellow soldier Albert (William Bakewell) are carried away for surgery, with one of them wheeled back into the room with an amputation, demonstrating a rare flair for drama that wasn’t as pointed at the start. This scene, along with Kat’s (Louis Wolheim) demise (as he’s carried to safety on Paul’s back) and the iconic, poetic parting shot, contribute to the enduring power of this striking epic.
– Mike Massie