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Still the benchmark for WW1 films - and rightly so
on 6 November 2007
NB: As is Amazon's Wont, they've very unhelpfully bundled all the reviews for various editions and formats together.
There's a reason that Lewis Milestone's All Quiet On the Western Front is still the best remembered of all the many films about the horrors of the First World War despite rarely being revived on television: it really IS a great and often very moving film that plants itself firmly in the memory. While WW1 movies had been gradually moving into darker territory as the silent era came to an end, perhaps only J'Accuse had dealt with the bitter disillusionment so many felt at the time quite so graphically. In that, All Quiet was aided at the time by having its lost generation on the losing side - British, French and American films would deal with the horrors of trench life but would still regard them as a price worth paying for victory. It would not be until the 1960s that futility on both sides would become the cinematic norm.
Filmed on a truly epic scale with a striking visual fluidity that was still unusual for an early talkie thanks to Arthur Edeson's pioneering cinematography, after the initial establishing scenes there's no real story, simply a succession of incidents as its group of schoolboy recruits are gradually killed off. As impressive as these incidents are, the film wouldn't be nearly as effective if the characters didn't convince, and the film is anchored by a superb lead performance from Lew Ayres as the idealistic young schoolboy who gradually becomes a shell of his former self, with excellent support from Louis Wolheim as the old soldier who takes him and his friends under his wing. Wisely replacing the flashback structure of Erich Maria Remarque's book with a chronological narrative, rather than introducing the characters as the cynical survivors they become, the film gradually shows their idealism worn away. While the attack and counter-attack sequences are still incredibly vivid, breathtakingly edited and surprisingly violent - in one memorable shot an explosion leaves only a pair of severed hands clinging to barbed wire - the real horror almost seems to be the way the characters adapt to their dehumanising conditions at the front to such an extent that they no longer fit in at home when they do get leave. It becomes impossible to imagine a life after the war so completely have they been consumed by it.
Ironically the film's most famous scene is nowhere to be found in the novel. Remarque never describes the final death: his body is simply discovered, appearing to be at peace. Milestone opted for something more explicitly powerful, but not without much trial and error. After at least seven scripted versions had been rejected, another ending of Paul hallucinating of French and German troops marching into the same grave and crying out in anguish before being shot by a sniper had been filmed but satisfied no-one - the studio wanted a happy ending (Milestone jokingly suggested having the Germans win!) while Milestone hated the rushes: it was cinematographer Karl Freund who suggested that the ending should be `as simple as a butterfly.' Hastily shot by Freund with Milestone's own hand standing in for Ayres, the iconic scene would become one of cinema's most enduring moments. Yet perhaps even more moving is the film's closing shot of the boys marching up the line to death, their faces superimposed over their graves as they look back at the camera and the audience without life and without hope. It still packs an incredible emotional punch more than three-quarters of a century later.
It's a shame there isn't a documentary to accompany the film on DVD or Blu-ray, as the film's history is fascinating (Andrew Kelly's book Filming All Quiet On the Western Front gives an excellent account). Numerous scenes were reshot with different cast members - ZaSu Pitts' scenes as Paul's mother were reshot with Beryl Mercer because Pitts had just had a comedy on release and the studio were afraid audiences would laugh when they saw her - while the film was exhibited in both sound and silent versions. Future directors Fred Zinnemann and Robert Parrish were extras in the film while an uncredited George Cukor was the film's dialogue coach. The film was banned in several countries in Europe before WW2 (New Zealand was the first country to ban it, on the bizarre grounds that it was `not entertainment' and therefore `unsuitable for public exhibition'!) and attacked by McCarthy as Communist propaganda after it when he included the Russian-born Milestone in his list of the 19 most `dangerous' subversives in the film industry.
The film's German premiere was disrupted by the Nazis, who even released mice in the theatre and organized several days of riots that successfully got the film banned in Germany to `preserve public order.' Over the subsequent years music was added to some scenes and the film was heavily cut with each reissue, even turned into an anti-Nazi pro-war propaganda film in 1939 by the judicious deletion of certain scenes and the addition of newsreel footage of Nazi rallies and book-burnings. Yet ironically the film's restoration was largely based on the longest surviving print, which had been found in Joseph Goebbels private collection - while he publicly attacked the film, he genuinely admired its artistry.
The version on DVD is still missing a few minutes of footage, some of which has been subsequently restored to 35mm prints and the Blu-ray release, but it's still well worth picking up. However, if you have a Blu-ray player, the BD version is definitely the way to go: the sound version is some two minutes longer and the improvement in picture quality is astonishing. It also includes the silent version, which uses some alternate takes and different edits, as well as a reissue trailer, brief introduction by Robert Osborne and a couple of anniversary featurettes on universal Pictures. The limited first edition also come in a handsome hardback digibook with booklet featuring rare stills and telegrams.