All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/17/12 12:44:56

"Quiet sometimes works better than loud."
5 stars (Awesome)

Despite this movie being made in 1930, there isn't necessarily a whole lot to be added to it on the subject of the way war takes young men and destroys them. The later likes of "Saving Private Ryan" may make the violence more graphic, and other movies may home in on the specific details of different conflicts, but everything important is here, from the promise to young men of glory and honor to the difficulty of coming home afterward.

Life is fairly tranquil in a mid-sized German town until the news arrives: War! History will later call it World War I, but urged on by their teacher (Arnold Lucy), a group of high school classmates has no idea what they're getting into, especially after seeing their jovial reservist mailman (John Wray) reveal another side of himself as a harsh taskmaster in boot camp. Soon Paul (Lew Ayres), Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), Leer (Scott Kolk), Peter (Owen Davis Jr.), Behn (Walter Browne Rogers), and Albert (William Bakewell) are on the front lines, finding something very different than the glory the adults described, and hoping to learn quick from the likes of Kat (Louis Wolheim), the sort of sergeant who somehow finds food and supplies when the men are starving.

It's somewhat fascinating to me that this movie was made from the German point of view in 1930. If I recall my history correctly, American sentiment wasn't particularly against Germany at this point, but this was still a movie (and book before it) that took a sympathetic view of the soldiers that many in the audience had fought against. Of course, there are very few really thick - or even mild - accents to be found here, and those are mostly among the officer corps or other hawks who might be portrayed as the soldiers' worst enemies. It's an interesting set of choices, even if it mostly comes down to characters speaking their native languages tending to be being portrayed as speaking with neutral accents back then.

In terms of look and feel, it's a movie of its time, no question - actors were very much still trying to figure out what worked right in a talkie versus stage or silents, and the overall look of the film can feel very stagebound. Much of the direction still holds up today, though - the opening shot in which a camera tracks through a window and the sound of a professor's lecture takes a while to assert itself is particularly impressive. Director Lewis Milestone and his crew also do a very impressive job of staying on-message in the battle scenes - they are impressively staged for a 1930 sound picture, but never so much so that the spectacle outweighs the horror of the situation.

The cast generally does good work: They're somewhat theatrical, but not excessively so. Ayres, in particular, plays up the emotion more than a modern actor might as the movie starts and Paul is a comfortable kid plucked out of high school and given a front seat to a string of horrors, but that adds a little something to his later scenes, when his uncertainty on what he should feel comes out less as moving between extremes of emotion and more as demonstrating uncertainty or acceptance depending on the environment. Louis Wolheim gives the audience an idea of what Paul's personality is approaching in the best-case scenario with his grizzled but still human characterization.

Describing what the rest do and how would give away the results, which may be eighty-year-old spoilers for a movie that is more abut inevitability than surprise, but it's still impressive just how well Milestone and his brace of writers and editors put the movie together. They strike an impressive balance between how the kids can be anyone without the group just feeling like a generic blur, for instance, and always keep an eye on how war always has a new kind of fear to inject into the soldier's soul. They ease back just enough at points so that a movie that is fairly long by today's standards (let alone 1930's) doesn't drag or burn the audience out without ever losing sight of the overall mood. And though it covers a lot of ground, nothing ever seems short-changed.

By the end, there's certainly nothing about war that seems glamorous; it has all quietly crumbled in the face of relentlessly clear view the film gives to a soldier's fears and how they so often come true. Many films since have taken a close look at parts or displayed the horrors in more explicit detail, but it's still a rare thing for the basic point to come across quite so elegantly, or in a way that can be shown to any audience without it seeming watered-down.

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