- Director: Lewis Milestone
- Writers: Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, and C. Gardner Sullivan, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
- Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis, Jr., William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Walter Browne Rogers, and Beryl Mercer
- Accolades: 1998 AFI Top Top 100 list (#54), 2 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Lewis Milestone), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
All Quiet on the Western Front may have been the first in a long series of great Hollywood War films. It was released in 1930 at a time when sound movies were still in their infancy and often required so much extra equipment that they greatly limited what the movie could actually do visually. But for this movie, director Lewis Milestone cracked camera movement with sound and used that ability to make a very realistic and power depiction of trench warfare in World War I. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes the camera pans over a long-line of attacking Allied soldiers being mowed down by machine gun fire. It seems to just keep going, and going, and going. This isn’t just a movie that uses sound to record dialogue, it uses it to overwhelm the audience and give them a window into what the soldiers might actually be feeling.
Based on a popular novel of its day, there’s a strong argument to be made that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most baldly anti-war films ever made. This is a story of soldiers who are basically conned into thinking going to war is glorious, only for every one of them to either be killed or lose their minds. They hate both their officers and the people at home, who seem to have no conception of what war is really like. When one soldier (Lew Ayres) returns home on leave, he finds that the home front doesn’t appeal to him, either. “There’s no home there anymore,” he sadly tells a fellow soldier (Louis Wolheim). That the movie gets away with this in a very different political climate is likely a product of the fact that it is ostensibly showing the war from the point of view of German soldiers. This is a story of the other side of the war, the losing side, Americans and other Allied nations could rationalize. Of course their soldiers would have been disillusioned. But the unspoken subtext of the movie is that the experience was likely the same for all of the soldiers involved, regardless of nationality or alliance.
The battle scenes included in the movie are almost modern in terms of the levels of realism and special effects. In one shocking moment, we see a soldier trying to climb over barbed wire when the area is struck by a shell, throwing smoke into the area. Then the smoke clears to show that there are just two severed hands holding onto the wire remaining. Steven Spielberg said that the battles here were a major influence on Saving Private Ryan, many decades later. One contemporary reviewer said that the best thing the League of Nations could do to prevent war would be to distribute the movie around the world.
Which is not to say that the movie still completely works on modern terms. For one thing, it sort of forgets to have characters. Ayres plays Paul, who is the closest thing to a main character, but he is not delineated in a meaningful way. The movie plays more as a parade of bad things happening to somewhat generic young handsome white guy actors. In close-up particularly, those performances are often still not really adjusted for the era of sound filmmaking. At one point Ayres gets a long monologue about how he felt after watching one of his comrades die in the hospital, played in one long close-up on his face. I think a modern movie with the right performance would knock this out of the part, but Ayres spends the whole time making very weird, insane-looking faces. In the silent era, this was probably necessary to convey emotions without words. With dialogue, it comes off as comical.
Milestone is basically unknown today, but won two of the first four Best Director Oscars to be awarded. He was born in Kiev as “Lev Milstein,” drove his parents crazy by constantly ditching school to go to the theater, and started making movies in America as soon as that became a thing. He had actually served in the American army during World War I, though he never went overseas. Many of the extras in this movie were actually former German soldiers who had emigrated after the war. A European Jew who still had family overseas, Milestone found himself in the very different position of enthusiastically producing pro-allied propaganda during World War II. Unfortunately, these included a couple of pro-Russian movies (which, again, the studio was specifically asked by the government to make). Along with his Ukrainian origins was enough for Milestone to find himself blacklisted after the war. He eventually returned to mainstream projects shortly before his death, when Frank Sinatra (surprisingly active around this time in trying to hire blacklisted crew) brought him into direct the original Ocean’s 11.
Lew Ayres, for his part, took the message of the movie to heart in a different way, registering as a conscientious objector during World War II. A popular Hollywood actor trying to “avoid service” by claiming to be a pacifist caused a predictable firestorm at the time. Actually, Ayres did go overseas for three years during the war as a medic with the Red Cross, and avoided nothing. The second-most memorable actor in this movie is probably Louis Wolheim, who plays the wily veteran soldier Katczinsky. Wolheim is one of the “rougher,” more distinctive looking actors of his day, his facial features the result of a football injury he suffered while at Cornell that never healed right. He was so successful playing a series of heavies and toughs that, when he tried to have his nose fixed surgically to try and get different roles, United Artists literally went to court and got a restraining order against him doing so. Wolheim died suddenly the next year while in the middle of filming Milestone’s next feature, the newspaper comedy The Front Page. His autopsy determined that he had undiagnosed, advanced stomach cancer.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a lot of different things, but it’s not subtle. In its famous final scene, Paul is shot dead by an Allied sniper when he reaches for a lone butterfly in No Man’s Land. As that message was so important and timely, and still hasn’t gotten through to many people, it can perhaps be forgiven. The most ringing endorsement I can think of for this movie is that, even before they came to power, the Nazis hated it. Goebbels organized brownshirts to disrupt screenings in Germany through a campaign of stink bombs, sneezing powder, and releasing swarms of white mice into movie theaters, all while shouting slogans like “Judenfilm!” They hated it not just because it had a Jewish director, but because that director was delivering a single, unmitigated message, “War Is Hell.” There are plenty of flaws in this movie from a modern perspective, but it does succeed in one way where so many other theoretically anti-war movies have failed over the decades: it avoids making the act of fighting in a war seem glamorous. This is perhaps the least glamorous movie about the least glamorous war.