All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) movie poster

(1930) dir. Lewis Milestone
viewed: 12/03/02

Most of the films that I have been seeing lately are very recent. In fact, the oldest film that I had seen this year only dated back to the 1960’s up til this point. I was interested in seeing Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front as I had just finished reading the book from which it was adapted.

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is absolutely stunning. I would easily rank it among the best novels that I have read. Shockingly visceral, the book is written (in translation from the German, mind you) in simple, clear, immediate language that effects poetry at times. Both the novel and the film are often described as “anti-war,” which they certainly are, as they depict “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

I had not long before read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and had been taking an interest in reading more about the first World War. I had remembered the gruesome descriptions from history class, and the significance of the horrors of the war on the world of the time. Now, having entered our new century, the second World War seems to have totally eclipsed WWI in the general consciousness (this is purely an opinion on my part — don’t ask me to prove it). Anyways, the period and history had interested me, and the novel of All Quiet on the Western Front I had known to be a “classic,” so I was interested in it.

So, after reading the book, I was curious to see the film, which was released in 1930, right as film was changing its productions from silent to sound. The film has also received great praise; it was the first sound film to win the Acadamy Award for Best Picture (while such an accolade these days seems to stand for nothing, it isn’t necessarily historically a problem).

The film is very good, but comes nowhere near the novel. The novel is more purely tragic and weighted with a heavy sadness throughout. The novel is also incredibly graphic and detailed, yet very personal and, as I mentioned before, even poetic at times. The film has many strong moments. Some of the strongest are dolly shots that pan across the approaching line of the French troops as they are gunned down or blown to bits one by one. They charge the screen and die in a continuous scrolling movement.

The film does a good job at telling the story, though it simplifies the narrative by making it chronilogical. It makes sense for the film to be this way, but it loses the less linear storytelling that gives the novel some of its qualities.

Also, I believe from what little that I have read, that the film originally began shooting as a silent film, and somewhere in the midst of production, they decided to add sound. There are many shots that linger on images longer than typically happens in sound film. Reactions are acted or mimed, with the image held for a more sustained “look” than we are used to seeing. While part of this has an antiquated quality to it, it also has an interesting effect. Silent film was a purely visual medium, and as such, relied entirely on images to tell the story. There is still a power in this.

Well, this is all I will say on this for the time being. Read the book. It is amazing.

Louis Wolheim was excellent as Katczinsky, easily the best performance in the film.

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