In Honour of Anzac day tomorrow, I thought I would look at a classic war movie today.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 realistic American war film adapted by George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews from the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. It was directed by Lewis Milestone, and was the first movie to win the Academy Awards for both Outstanding Production and Best Director. It was also nominated for best writing and Best cinematography. The original movie is not a 'talkie', but some characters were recast and talking scenes were later added. The sound effects are quite astounding in both versions, none the less.
|Publicity photo of Lewis Milestone, 1930|
It stars Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander. A great number of German Army veterans were living in Los Angeles at the time of filming and were recruited as bit players and technical advisers, with around 2,000 extras used during production. The movie was filmed in Universal Studio back-lots, with the battle scenes shot at Irvine Ranch, California.
|An excited Paul off to war|
The story sees Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres, in his second major role at only 21, and one which made him a star), a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. He arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates where they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat (Louis Wolheim), who becomes Paul's mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the dangerous and often dirty conditions of warfare.
For boys whose concept of war consists of love of country, adventure, bravery, honour, and glory they quickly change their minds once the wholesale slaughter of human beings begins.
|Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim|
Erich Maria Remarque stated at the beginning of his novel that "This book is to be 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 shells, were destroyed by the war."
|Reaching for a butterfly|
The movie gives a realistic view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves - the monotony between battles, the constant threat of gunshot and bombings, the lack of food and comfort, the rudimentary training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the deaths they have to face. This is not really a movie about bravery, but there are many touching moments, like the butterfly scene (above) and the film’s final scene, when all the young, male corpses-to-be turn to face the camera while marching on to battle.
Universal re-released the film in 1939 aiming to remind people of the horrors of wars, with anti-Nazi propaganda read out throughout the movie.
|1939 movie poster|
On the movies first release, Variety wrote:
The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.
|Paul comforts his sister|
Not everyone agreed. Between 1928 to 1941, this was one of many films to be banned in Australia by the Chief Censor Creswell O'Reilly. The film was also banned in Italy in 1929, Austria in 1931, and not surprisingly in Germany, after, the Nazis first disrupted the viewings in the early 30s by releasing rats in the theatres.
Interestingly the film's star, Ayres, became a conscientious objector during World War II, although he did serve as a non-combatant, so I gather the story had big effect on him. It did on me, and while movies like this may not be able to get us to know what it’s actually like to be a soldier, they can help us begin to feel the tragedy of the sacrifice it requires, and what he survivors have to deal with for the rest of their lives. This movie, from the side of 'our' enemy, also helps us remember that we are all the same. Lest we forget.