The ravages of war are unmasked in a timeless cinematic landmark
I love this week’s film, “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Often lauded as the greatest anti-war film ever made, this potent jewel is blockbuster entertainment. And creative direction keeps the film bursting with energy from the first beautiful frame to its haunting finale as only a film can. An early sound film that furthered the art of cinema, it earned four Academy Award nominations and became the first to win both Best Picture and Best Director statues, and the first non-musical all-talking film to win Best Picture. Decades later, the American Film Institute named it the 7th Greatest Epic and the 54th Greatest American Movie of all-time. Its images are so powerful they have been duplicated in countless films (particularly war films) to this day. But none seem to match the originality, freshness, and gravity of this one. It is required viewing for anyone interested in early cinematic masterpieces.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” was adapted from a 1929 internationally best-selling novel with the same name by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, based around his military experiences during World War I. The story revolves around a schoolboy named “Paul”, who gets swept up in the nobility of patriotism and glory in dying for one’s country. He and his teenage classmates enlist in the army and their romantic ideas of heroism are pretty quickly shattered by the realities of war.
The film opens with a message: “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”. Through “Paul’s” journey, we get a first-hand glimpse of the ravages of war, the frayed nerves, the bonds, the mental anguish, the hunger, fear, and courage. It is a front row seat to the frontlines, how war changes people, and how those that don’t go to war don’t understand what happens to those who do.
While “All Quiet on the Western Front” is jam-packed with talented people behind and in front of the camera, its shining star is its director Lewis Milestone, whose choice of visuals turn this compelling story into a remarkable cinematic event, providing a glowing example of just what a director can add to a film. He manages to color the film with an overwhelming honesty and passionate matter-of-factness, as if we are watching people go through life with all its unexpected twists and turns, pain and beauty. One must remember that this film was just words on a page until Milestone envisioned how to present those words through moving pictures and sound. His extraordinary choices are riveting to say the least.
Originally planned as a silent film (two versions of the film were simultaneously shot, one silent and one with sound), “All Quiet on the Western Front” was made at the very end of the silent era, just as the artistry of silent cinema was at its height. Synchronous sound came to the to movies with many technical issues that had negative artistic effects, primarily the fact that noisy cameras became immobile (having to be enclosed in enormous soundproof enclosures), and that to concurrently record people visually and audibly, action was driven largely around the placement of microphones.
One of the most important pioneers of early sound films, Milestone refused to submit to these constraints and largely shot the film as if it were silent, adding sound later. He pre-planned his shots and insisted on filming in sequence with one camera. The battle scenes were filmed with a small silent camera which could move freely on cranes and dollies, and sound was added later through dubbing and sound effects. This freed his camera which moves from very high in the air to very low to the ground and everywhere in between. The way he integrated sound with camera movement was unique at the time and opened the door for all films that came after it.
Set in Germany just as World War I is beginning, the film opens as Milestone moves his camera through a doorway to reveal a parade of soldiers being celebrated by the villagers while marching through the streets off to war. The camera floats from the street through a schoolroom window where we find a teacher giving an inspirational talk to his class of young boys about the glory of fighting and dying for one’s country while still letting us see the celebration happening outside through the windows. As the teacher speaks, Milestone introduces us to many of our characters through close-ups, showing their thoughts about enlisting through the use of dissolves. By the end of this sequence, the energized students leave the classroom riled up and ready to enlist. In their unbridled eagerness, they throw books and papers in the air, leaving the room in disarray, as if it were the aftermath of a war. It's truly an extraordinary opening sequence.
Also jaw-dropping are the battle sequences, among the best in any film. Especially famous (and often copied) are Milestone’s tracking shots showing bombs exploding amidst hordes of soldiers running, falling, shooting, and dying. These fluid camera movements were more abundant and dramatic than any seen before and Milestone combines them with inserts of soldiers firing guns, jumping in and out of trenches, engaged in hand-to-hand combat, and closeups of soldier’s reaction shots – all creating what feels like real, edge-of-your seat combat. This footage looks so realistic, it’s been reported to have shown up in WWI compilation documentaries.
Milestone’s camera placement is exquisite. Whether still or on the move, his camera adds an exciting vitality and emotion. Rather than choose predictable run-of-the-mill shots, he takes innovative approaches, such as how he follows a pair of boots, how he shows “Paul” and a French soldier in a foxhole at night through a series of flashing images, or even how he indicates that “Paul” copulated with a French woman through the use of sound while showing only the shadow of a bedpost on a wall. His inspired direction creates one poetically harrowing, highly entertaining movie and deservingly earned him a Best Director Academy Award.
Ukraine-born Lewis Milestone was raised in Bessarabia of the Russian Empire (now Moldova) where he had an early infatuation with the stage, and when he turned 18, he headed to New York City to pursue theater. He worked odd jobs, including that of a portrait and theater photographer, and while serving in the US Signal Corps during WWI, began his film career as an assistant director making training films and editing documentary combat footage. He was also trained in aerial photography. After leaving the Signal Corps, he began work in Hollywood as an editor, writer, and then assistant director. In 1925 he became a director, with his directorial feature debut being the comedy "Seven Sinners". In 1927, he directed the comedy "Two Arabian Knights", for which he won his first Best Director Academy Award. "All Quiet on the Western Front” came a half dozen films later and won him his second Best Director Oscar.
Even though Milestone directed other classics in many different genres, this film is considered his masterpiece, and he became known for his war films. Milestone's next film was the comedy "The Front Page" (on which the classic screwball comedy "His Girl Friday" was based), earning him another Best Director Oscar nomination (his third and final). Other notable films from his roster of directing approximately fifty features include "Of Mice and Men", "Rain", "The General Died at Dawn", "Anything Goes”, “A Walk in the Sun”, "The North Star", "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers", "Les Miserables", "Ocean's Eleven", and his final feature, 1962's "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando.
Being Jewish, from Russia, and a liberal, during the McCarthy Era Milestone was an easy target for being labelled a communist (I explain more in my “High Noon” post), and when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was an "unfriendly witness", refusing to name names of other supposed communists. Rather than blacklisted, he was greylisted and continued to work (mostly abroad). But many felt being greylisted hurt his career, for from then on he worked less frequently and largely on lower quality films. He ended his career directing two TV episodes, both in 1964. He was married once, to actress Kendall Lee, until her death in 1978. Lewis Milestone died in 1980 at the age of 84.
Milestone was surrounded by a spectacular crew, including one of cinema’s great cinematographers, Arthur Edeson. The camera work in this film is exceptional, with action often taking place on multiple planes, in the rain, through doorways, windows and other confined spaces with magnificent lighting, atmosphere, and framing. The astonishing work on “All Quiet on the Western Front” earned Edeson a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination. He began in silent films before moving to sound, photographing countless classics along the way. He was the cinematographer for several films already this blog, "Mutiny on the Bounty", "The Maltese Falcon", "Casablanca", and “Frankenstein”, and in my post on the latter, you can read more about Arthur Edeson’s life and career.
Though it may not look or feel like it, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was shot entirely in California – on sets at Universal Studios, trenches built near Santa Ana, and various locations in and around Balboa and the Santa Monica Mountains. The set of a German town spread across nearly four acres. All the sets feel authentic and completely transport the viewer to the first World War. The film’s art director was Charles D. Hall, another name that should ring a bell to those religiously reading this blog. Like Milestone and Edeson, Hall also worked on many classic films (with a particular talent for horror films), and you can also read more about the life and career of Charles D. Hall in my post on “Frankenstein”. Just click on the film title to open that page.
Another person who worked on the film who should be familiar to readers is George Cukor, who was the film’s dialogue director, helping actors deliver lines for the camera. He soon went on to become one of filmdom’s top directors. You can read more about him in my posts on several classics he directed, "The Philadelphia Story", "Gone with the Wind", "Born Yesterday", "Camille", “Gaslight", and "The Women”.
The cast of “All Quiet on the Western Front” all help make the film exemplary entertainment, and one thing I love about the cast is how each of them have their own individual personality. That includes Louis Wolheim who is top billed as “Kat”, the experienced soldier who teaches the young boys the ropes of battle, such as distinguishing the sound of shellfire and how to dodge it. Wolheim presents “Kat” as a gruff but somehow lovable Sergeant, and his fondness for his company, particularly “Paul”, is ever-present. He knows war is brutal yet adds quite a bit of humanity to the ordeal.
New York City born Louis Wolheim began as a mining engineer and a mathematics instructor at Cornell. He smashed and broke his nose in a college football game, and his broken nose became his trademark. Realizing his face would set him apart, actor Lionel Barrymore convinced Wolheim to act, and in 1919 with "The Jest", Wolheim began a steady Broadway career for the next six years. His first film appearance was in 1927's "Sorrell and Son", and steady film work followed, with appearances in 58 films (mostly silent and mostly playing thugs and heavies due to his nose) including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Danger Lights", "The Awakening", and his final "The Sin Ship" in 1931, which he also directed (his only directing credit). He was married once until his death. Louis Wolheim died from stomach cancer in 1931 at the age of 50. He is best remembered for "All Quiet on the Western Front".
A new star emerged from “All Quiet on the Western Front” – Lew Ayres (billed as Lewis Ayers) who plays “Paul Bäumer”. Ayers managed to capture the passion, innocence, idealism, courage, and disillusionment of youth in a heartfelt performance. He has several moving speeches, particularly the one he delivers to his teacher. This was only Ayers’ second credited film role and it turned him into a movie star.
Minneapolis-born Lew Ayers decided from the time he saw his first movie at the age of seven, that he wanted to be an actor. As a teenager he moved to San Diego, California and began playing the banjo and guitar in bands, eventually playing with a band that had a gig in Hollywood. While there, he tried to get work as an actor. After two small uncredited roles, he made what is considered his film debut opposite Greta Garbo in the silent 1929 classic, "The Kiss". After Milestone couldn't get the actor he wanted to portray "Paul" in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, he settled on the unknown twenty year old Ayers, who had just tested for the part. Originally signing with Universal Pictures, Ayres made his way from studio to studio starring non-stop in mostly lesser films, with some exceptions being Tod Browning's "Iron Man" opposite Jean Harlow, "State Fair" opposite Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers, and George Cukor's "Holiday" opposite Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. While at MGM, in 1938 he first appeared as "Dr. James Kildare" in "Young Dr. Kildare", and played the young doctor in eight more films through 1942.
When the US entered WWII, Ayres felt he couldn't kill anyone and asked if he could serve in the army as a noncombat medic (which he did for four years – including two years in the South Pacific and being shot at in three invasions). Because military policy forbade servicemen to request where they serve, he was classified as a conscientious objector (someone who refuses to perform military service) even though he did serve. Ayres donated all the money he earned from the Army to the American Red Cross. Being labeled a conscientious objector and also being best known as the face of the antiwar "All Quiet on the Western Front" greatly hurt his star status, though he did return to Hollywood after the war at the request of Olivia de Havilland, who wanted him to star opposite her in 1946's "The Dark Mirror".
In 1948 Ayers earned his only Academy Award nomination as Best Actor in "Johnny Belinda". In 1954, he began appearing primarily on television with an occasional film here and there, including "Advise & Consent", "The Carpetbaggers", "Battlestar Galactica", and his final feature, "The World of Don Camillo" in 1984. He accrued 155 film and television credits, and some of his extensive TV work includes roles on "Highway to Heaven", "Lime Street", "Salem's Lot", "The Bionic Woman", "The Doris Day Show", and his final appearance on the 1994 TV movie "Hart to Hart: Crimes of the Hart". Ayers also directed three films: the 1936 feature "Hearts in Bondage"; and two documentaries about world religions which he also produced, "Altars of the East" in 1955 and "Altars of the World" in 1976 (the latter of which earned him a Best Documentary Golden Globe). He was married three times, including marriages to actresses Lola Lane and Ginger Rogers. Lew Ayers died in 1996 at the age of 88.
Ben Alexander plays “Franz Kemmerich”, one of “Paul’s” fellow classmates who joins him at war. Alexander gives a sensitive portrayal as the boy with a sturdy pair of boots. The Nevada-born actor was raised in California and began working in movies at the age of five, starting with the 1916 silent "Every Pearl a Tear". He continued working in silents as a child and juvenile, including an appearance in D. W. Griffith's "Hearts of the World". After a brief retirement, Alexander returned to films with the advent of sound with "All Quiet on the Western Front" being the standout. As he got older, parts became harder to come by and he retired from the screen in 1941 and began a very successful career as a radio announcer. He moved to television in 1952, when Jack Webb asked him to appear as "Officer Frank Smith" in the classic TV show "Dragnet", which ran until 1959 and earned Alexander two Emmy Award nominations. Alexander did a few more TV appearances, including his final, starring as "Desk Sgt. Dan Briggs" in the detective series "The Felony Squad" from 1966 until 1969. He was married twice. Ben Alexander died from a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 58.
Albuquerque-born Slim Summerville plays steadfast army veteran "Tjaden", adding a bit of humor to the saga – no surprise as Summerville was an actor known primarily for comedies. He began in silent shorts as part of famed silent slapstick director Max Sennett's company of actors, beginning as a "Keystone Cop" in "Hoffmeyer's Legacy" in 1912. He continued appearing in and even directing silent shorts (he directed 67 shorts) until the arrival of sound when he began working almost exclusively in features. Most notable was his pairing with Zasu Pitts in a series of comedies, and with Hoot Gibson in Westerns. Summerville’s 217 film credits include the musical "King of Jazz", the Shirley Temple films "Captain January" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", Milestone's "The Front Page", John Ford's "Tobacco Road", and Summerville's final film, "The Hoodlum Saint" in 1946. He was married twice. Slim Summerville died of a stroke in 1946 at the age of 53.
Beryl Mercer gives a touching performance as “Paul's Mother”, exuding the warmth and pain of motherly love. The film was originally shot with actress Zasu Pitts in the role, but because Pitts was an established film comedienne, as soon as preview audiences saw her on the screen they immediately laughed. So Milestone reshot all her scenes with Mercer (quick footage of Pitts can be seen in the film’s original trailer). Born in Seville, Spain to British parents, Beryl Mercer became a child actor on the London stage, making it to Broadway in 1906. Her film career began in 1915, and when sound arrived she began to work steadily. She appears in many classics, including "Public Enemy", "Cavalcade", "Jane Eyre", and "The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Mercer often played mothers, and played Queen Victoria in two 1939 films, "The Little Princess" and "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell". Married twice, her first marriage was to actor Holmes Herbert. Beryl Mercer died in 1939 at the age of 62.
One quick mention of another known comedian who appears in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and that’s Raymond Griffith, who plays the dying French soldier "Gerard Duval". Having lost his voice at an early age, for the bulk of his life, Boston-born Raymond Griffith’s speech was rendered to no more than a hoarse whisper. That didn't stop him from becoming a popular silent film actor beginning in 1915. He worked with producers of silent comedies such as L-KO Kompany, Max Sennett, and Triangle, also working as a gag man and scenario writer, and became a popular comedic actor. Griffith appeared in over seventy silent films (not just comedies), including "The Day of Faith", "Hands Up!", "and "Badger's Paths to Paradise". Because of his whisper of a voice, the coming of sound ended his acting career, though his part in this film fit him like a glove and remains his best remembered role. It was also his final film appearance. He went on to produce 55 films which include "20,000 Years in Sing Sing", "Baby Face", "Gold Diggers of 1933", and his final, "The Mark of Zorro" in 1940. He was married once until his death. Raymond Griffith died in 1957 at the age of 62.
Many of the 2,000 or so extras in the film were actual WWI veterans, including some former German soldiers who had since moved to the US (who also acted as technical advisors). One extra was Austrian Empire-born Fred Zinnemann, who later became one of Hollywood's most acclaimed directors (you can read about him in my "High Noon" and "From Here to Eternity" posts).
In addition to Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins and a Best Cinematography nomination, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was also nominated for a Best Writing Achievement Academy Award (for writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews). Two more versions of "All Quiet on the Western Front" have been made to date, a 1979 made-for-TV movie, and a German 2022 version which has been released on Netflix and is Germany's candidate for this year's Best International Feature Film Academy Award (and is quite different from this film).
Though acclaimed by critics and audiences, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was met with some pushback. Though it pretty much steers clear of any politics, it is a story told from a German soldier's viewpoint (though it could be anyone at war). That, and its anti-war sentiment caused some controversies. The Nazi party (who was on the rise in Germany at the time) opposed the film and disrupted German screenings of it by releasing stink bombs, rats, and snakes into theaters. The film was banned in several places including Victoria, Australia until 1941, in France until 1963, and in Italy and Austria until the 1980s.
Highly original, dynamic, gripping, and intensely powerful, this week’s often imitated classic stands the test of time as one of the greatest war films ever made. So get ready for a highly moving experience, and enjoy “All Quiet on the Western Front”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The final shot reaching for the butterfly in "All Quiet on the Western Front" is another of the film's most famous, and it differs from the ending of the book. While editing the film, Milestone found himself unhappy with the film’s ending. Remembering the scene in which "Paul" looks at his butterfly collection, Milestone came up with this ending, but by this point, actor Ayers and cinematographer Edeson were busy making other films and unavailable to reshoot, so that’s Milestone's hand we see reaching. It was filmed by another famed cinematographer, Karl Freund (who you can read about in my post on "The Good Earth”).