Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
- Standing: Winner – Best Picture of 1929/30
- Type: War, Drama, Action, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Writing Achievement (George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews), Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson)
- Other AA Wins: Best Director (Lewis Milestone)
- Director: Lewis Milestone
- Studio/Producer: Universal Pictures / Carl Laemmle
- Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Slim Summerville, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Arnold Lucy, John Wray, G. Pat Collins, Yola d’Avril
- Production Notes: Based on the book Im Westen nichts Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, Adapted for the screen by Maxwell Anderson and Del Anderson, Screenplay by George Abbott, Cinematography by Arthur Edeson
- Viewing Order: 14/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
All Quiet on the Western Front was based on the book Im Westen nichts Neues by German author Erich Maria Remarque, written from his own wartime experience as an infantryman in World War I. The book was an international bestseller and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
German student Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his classmates Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), Leer (Scott Kolk), Kropp (William Bakewell), and Muller (Russell Gleason) eagerly join up to become a soldier in World War I after their teacher Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) delivers an impassioned and patriotic speech encouraging it. Only classmate Behm (Walter Browne Rogers) is hesitant, his fears realized when the group reaches the Western Front. Once there they discover that war is truly only death, destruction, hunger, and pain on the backs of citizens who would rather live peacefully, no matter which side they’re on.
The wake-up call only gets louder. Baumer and his group make enemies with Himmelstoss (John Wray), a power-hungry Corporal, and friends with Lieutenant Bertinck (G. Pat Collins), the group’s noble leader, and “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), who would become Baumer’s mentor. Amid explosions and existential conversations, the group is whittled away. As it is in war, no one is safe, be it secondary or main character. It makes for a thrilling and nail-biting experience watching and wondering if this is the fight that will be so-and-so’s last.
The film touches on the many horrors of war such as the famine experienced by townspeople, amputations, death of friends, and the difficulty of returning to civilian life after war. This message did not work for the increasingly powerful Nazi Party, who burned the book and banned the film, as it did not align with their patriotic German agenda or image of stalwart, proud soldiers. Though the book and film were recognized as being decidedly anti-war, Remarque claimed his intention was only to write realistically about his own wartime experience. I am inclined to believe him; how can war not be horrific?
The scene in which Paul takes the life of another man and agonizes over it, trying to save the man as he is dying, speaking to him after he is gone, and vowing to write to his family was especially touching and poignant. The thought that no life is expendable, in war or otherwise, and could easily be yours is such an important one.
If one happened to forget that this film was made during the pre-code era, a reminder comes by way of the scene where Baumer and his buddies are swimming nude in a lake and splash around, in the process showing off their bare rear ends to 3 townswomen who the lads are trying to pick up. Later, after winning an invitation with their antics and the promise of food for the starving women, they sneak to the women’s home across the lake, again nude, and enter the house wearing nothing but robes the women provide them. Later, they pair off, the lights go out, and the shadows playing on the posters of a bed indicate that they have adjourned to a bedroom…
Several of the actors came to this film from careers in the theatre…and largely it shows. The acting is one of the most unrealistic aspects of this film. Though not necessarily bad, some of the actors use a sweeping, overly dramatic style of acting that is occasionally out of place with the gritty, raw scenes. That style now out of vogue, the film begs to be remade. Someone else had this thought in 1979 and a TV movie based on the book starring Richard Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Kat was made.
Behind the Scenes:
What would be one of an incredibly baby-faced Lew Ayres’ (Lewis Ayres in the credits) first films, would be one of Louis Wolheim’s last. He passed away the next year of cancer. Ayres in this role is quite green, but good, and his performance would ensure him a fairly steady Hollywood career (most notably his recurring film role as Dr. Kildare). In an interesting parallel to his character Paul, who would become adverse to war, when World War II rolled around, Ayres listed as a conscientious objector, though he would serve as a medic and First Aid instructor.
Why did it win Best Picture?
The book and film managed to tap into powerful universal feelings surrounding the horror of war and wish for peace. It was also well made and beautifully shot as a bonus.
How does it hold up today?
The film holds up today and is still recognized as one of the best and most important war films of all time (according to critics and several of the American Film Institute’s best of lists).
- IMDb = 8 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes = 100% out of 100% fresh by critics and 89% by audiences
Would this be my pick for 1929/30’s Best Picture?
While I certainly appreciate this film for what it was and managed to do and can easily imagine the extreme impact it had on 1930’s audiences, I don’t know if I would watch it again. Though certain shots were gorgeous and certain scenes quite interesting, it was also long at about 2 and a half hours and at times felt like 2 and a half hours. I can understand the Academy’s decision to select it Best Picture…but I don’t think I would.