This week’s War Movie Monday pick is Universal Picture’s first ever Academy Award winning film for Best Picture and for Best Director (Lewis Milestone), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The film stars Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Ben Alexander, and Slim Summerville.
All Quiet on the Western Front has been hailed as the greatest anti-war film of all time. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, the film follows a group of young men who witness the horrors of World War I after being convinced by their schoolmaster that duty to one’s country and to shed blood in defense of the fatherland is a noble deed.
The small group of young men quickly gets their first dose of military life after they endure basic training at the hands of their drill instructor Himmelstoss (Wray) who is the World War I equivalent of what R. Lee Ermey was for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. After just only a few short weeks of basic training, the young men are sent off to the front and are plunged head first into combat.
When Paul (Ayres) and his fellow enlistees arrive at the front by rail, they witness their first bombardment that causes them to fall to the ground and huddle in fear as the whistling sound of shells flies overhead. One of the young recruits is killed and the others are assigned to a unit of the Second Company who are held up in a bombed out house on the outskirts of the town they’ve arrived in.
Cold, wet, and hungry, the recruits haven’t eaten since breakfast and ask the group of older, seasoned troops what they can do about food. One of the men Tjaden (Summerville) tells Paul and the others to “eat without further delay.” The others laugh and Paul becomes angered asking why the statement is so amusing to the others. Tjaden informs Paul that the rest of them have been there for days and that they haven’t eaten since then. One of the men Kat (Wolheim) is out trying to find food for them. When Kat arrives back at the house, he is carrying a slaughtered hog he stole from a railroad car and has wrapped it up in a piece of cloth to protect it from being spotted.
Kat introduces himself to the new recruits and wonders why they bothered to volunteer. Kat offers them some of the pig and asks that they pay with liquor, cigarettes, or other commodities other than money that holds no true value in war.
With their bellies full, the group of men is chosen to head out to the front lines to string up barbwire along their trench fortifications. While walking through the woods, Kat tells the boys to watch out for a certain type of artillery shell that makes a buzzing sound and then explodes overhead. The recruits latch on to Kat as a father figure and as an expert of how to survive this terrible war.
During an artillery attack, one of the men Behn (Walter Rogers) is blinded by a shell burst and is dying in bomb crater. One of the men Franz (Alexander) tries to save Behn but he dies as he is brought back to a safe position. Kat asks why he risked his life to save a “corpse”. Kat very sternly tells the rest of them to never do anything like that ever again.
One of the greatest scenes in the film is the first battle sequence in the trenches after the men have been under constant bombardment for nearly a week. Most of the men can’t deal with it and some succumb to the effects of “shell shock” which today would be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that was scoffed at by many armies but today, is a very real disorder that affects many combatants.
The sheer scope of the battle sequence is as real as the actual Western Front of the war. Milestone hired hundreds of extras and used areas around the Universal lot for many of the large exterior shots of the film. The sound effects used are very terrifying and really give the viewer the sense of fear and dread one would have felt. Many of the sound effects would later be used by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998) during the assault on Omaha Beach.
My second favorite scene is after the first attack when the men are relieved and brought back to the rear for hot food and rest. After nearly beating a cook who refuses to serve them until the whole company has arrived, the men feast on beans, bread, and sausage while they ponder the real reason behind the war and why they’re fighting it.
Some speculate whether or not one country’s geographical features offend one another, to the theory that their respective rulers and armament companies need war in order to justify their role in the world. Kat’s theory/solution is the best. He suggests that when a war is declared, the kings and their ministers be stripped down to the undergarments, and fight in a ring with clubs, the winner being the best country.
All Quiet on the Western Front became an international hit, which garnered many praise from critics and veterans who found the film to be very realistic. Upon its release, Variety wrote “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy 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.”
Due to the nature of the film and its representation of German fighting men, the Nazis banned the film after they gained power in 1933. To disrupt viewings by theater patrons, many Nazis would release rats into the theater.
During the filming, Milestone hired as many as two thousand German extras that were living in the Los Angeles area. One such man was future director Fred Zinneman (High Noon) who was fired for being difficult on camera.
After starring in only three films, Lew Ayres’ career took off and was a very bankable actor throughout the rest of the 1930s. When World War II came, Ayres became a pacifist and refused to carry a gun in combat. His career suffered greatly, and the Hollywood community shunned him. Ayres proved to be brave as a serving medic in the Pacific and was redeemed by Hollywood shortly after the end of the war. Actress Olivia De Havilland fought hard for Ayres to become the great actor he once was and cast him in one of her films.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Louis Wolheim managed to make the transition into talkies and has always been one of my favorite original Hollywood stars. Quite the Renaissance man, Wolheim taught math at Cornell University and was a prizefighter in his youth. Due to having his nose broken several times, he was always typecast as a brute or thug. Wolheim would be forever nicknamed “the gentle giant”. It was his longtime friend and fellow actor Lionel Barrymore who convinced Wolheim to become an actor.
The United States Library of Congress’ national Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” selected All Quiet on the Western Front in 1990 to forever be preserved.
All Quiet on the Western Front is available in a brand new Blu-Ray and DVD combo thru Universal Home Video. It is one of the best prints of the film that I’ve ever seen. A must have for any film collection.