All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 American epic pre-Code anti-war film based on the 1929 Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it stars Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander. It is the first Best Picture winner based on a novel.
All Quiet on the Western Front opened to wide acclaim in the United States. Considered a realistic and harrowing account of warfare in World War I, it made the American Film Institute's first 100 Years...100 Movies list in 1997. A decade later, after the same organization polled over 1,501 workers in the creative community, All Quiet on the Western Front was ranked the seventh-best American epic film. In 1991, the film was selected and preserved by the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was the first to win the Academy Awards for both Outstanding Production and Best Director.
Its sequel, The Road Back (1936), portrays members of the 2nd Company returning home after the war.
Professor Kantorek gives an impassioned speech about the glory of serving in the Army and "saving the Fatherland". On the brink of becoming men, the boys in his class, led by Paul Bäumer, are moved to join the army as the new 2nd Company. Their romantic delusions are quickly broken during their brief but rigorous training under the abusive Corporal Himmelstoss, who bluntly informs them, "You're going to be soldiers—and that's all."
The new soldiers arrive by train at the combat zone, which is mayhem, with soldiers everywhere, incoming shells, horse-drawn wagons racing about, and prolonged rain. One in the group is killed before the recruits can reach their post, to the alarm of one of the new soldiers (Behn). The new soldiers are assigned to a unit composed of older soldiers, who are not exactly accommodating.
The young soldiers find that there is no food available at the moment. They have not eaten since breakfast, but the men they have joined have not had food for two days. One of them, "Kat" Katczinsky, had gone to locate something to eat, and he returns with a slaughtered hog he has stolen from a field kitchen. The young soldiers "pay" for their dinner with soaps and cigarettes.
The recruits' first trip to the trenches with the veterans, to re-string barbed wire, is a harrowing experience, especially when Behn is blinded by shrapnel and hysterically runs into machine-gun fire. After spending several days in a bunker under bombardment, they finally move into the trenches and successfully repulse an enemy attack; they then counterattack and take an enemy trench with heavy casualties but have to abandon it. They are sent back to the field kitchens to get their rations; each man receives double helpings, simply because of the number of dead.
They hear that they are to return to the front the next day and begin a semi-serious discussion about the causes of the war and of wars in general. They speculate about whether geographical entities offend each other and whether these disagreements involve them. Tjaden speaks familiarly about himself and the Kaiser; Kat jokes that instead of having a war, the leaders of Europe should be stripped to their underwear and made to "fight it out with clubs".
One day, Corporal Himmelstoss arrives at the front and is immediately spurned because of his bad reputation. He is forced to go over the top with the 2nd Company and is promptly killed. In an attack on a cemetery, Paul stabs a French soldier but finds himself trapped in a hole with the dying man for an entire night. He desperately tries to help him throughout the night, bringing him water but fails to stop him from dying. He cries bitterly and begs the dead body to speak so he can be forgiven. Later, he returns to the German lines and is comforted by Kat.
Going back to the front line, Paul is severely wounded and taken to a Catholic hospital, along with his good friend Albert Kropp. Kropp's leg is amputated, but he does not find out until some time afterward. Around this time, Paul is taken to the bandaging ward, from which, according to its reputation, nobody has ever returned alive. Still, he later returns to the normal rooms triumphantly, only to find Kropp in depression.
Paul is given a furlough and visits his family at home. He is shocked by how uninformed everyone is about the war's actual situation; everyone is convinced that a final "push for Paris" is soon to occur. When Paul visits the schoolroom where he was originally recruited, he finds Professor Kantorek prattling the same patriotic fervor to a class of even younger students. Professor Kantorek asks Paul to detail his experience, at which the latter reveals that war was not at all like he had envisioned and mentions the deaths of his partners.
This revelation upsets the professor, as well as the young students who promptly call Paul a "coward". Disillusioned and angry, Paul returns to the front and comes upon another 2nd Company filled with new young recruits who are now disillusioned; he is then happily greeted by Tjaden. He goes to find Kat, and they discuss the people's inability to comprehend the futility of the war. Kat's shin is broken when a bomb dropped by an aircraft falls nearby, so Paul carries him back to a field hospital, only to find that a second explosion has killed Kat. Crushed by the loss of his mentor, Paul leaves.
In the final scene, Paul is back on the front line. He sees a butterfly just beyond his trench. Smiling, he reaches out for the butterfly. While reaching, however, he is shot and killed by an enemy sniper. The final sequence shows the 2nd Company arriving at the front for the first time, fading out to the image of a cemetery.
In the film, Paul is shot while reaching for a butterfly. This scene is different from the book, and was inspired by an earlier scene showing a butterfly collection in Paul's home. The scene was shot during the editing phase, so the actors were no longer available and Milestone had to use his own hand as Paul's.
Noted comedienne ZaSu Pitts was originally cast as Paul's mother and completed the film but preview audiences, used to seeing her in comic roles, laughed when she appeared onscreen so Milestone re-shot her scenes with Beryl Mercer before the film was released. The preview audience remains the only one who saw Pitts in the role, although she does appear for about 30 seconds in the film's original preview trailer.
The film was shot with two cameras side by side, with one negative edited as a sound film and the other edited as an "International Sound Version" for distribution in non-English speaking areas.
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. Around 2,000 extras were utilized during production. Among them was future director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, Julia), who was fired for impudence.
The original international Sound Version of the film, lasting 152 minutes, was first shown in Los Angeles on April 21, 1930, and premiered in New York on April 25, 1930. This version has intertitles and a synchronized music and effects track. A sound version with dialogue was released in NYC on April 29, 1930. A 147-minute version was submitted to the British censors, which was cut to 145 minutes before the film premiered in London June 14, 1930. The film went on general release in the US on August 24, 1930. The sound version was re-released in 1939, though cut down to ten reels.
On its initial 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.
Some of the credit for the film's success has been ascribed to the direction of Lewis Milestone:
Without diluting or denying any ... criticisms, it should be said that from World War I to Korea, Milestone could put the viewer into the middle of a battlefield, and make the hellish confusion of it seem all too real to the viewer. Steven Spielberg noted as much when he credited Milestone's work as partial inspiration for Saving Private Ryan ... Lewis Milestone made significant contributions to [the genre of] the war film.
Later re-releases were substantially cut and the film's ending scored with new music against the wishes of director Lewis Milestone. Before he died in 1980, Milestone requested that Universal fully restore the film with the removal of the end music cue. Two decades later, Milestone's wishes were finally granted when the United States Library of Congress undertook an exhaustive restoration of the film in 2006. This version incorporates all known surviving footage and is 133 minutes long.
Various edited versions have been distributed on video, and the first US DVD, released in 1999, contains an unrestored 131-minute British release print. Since 2007, there have been numerous international releases of the 2006 Library of Congress restoration on DVD and Blu-ray. The latter format additionally contains a 133-minute restoration of the international sound version.
All Quiet on the Western Front received tremendous praise in the United States. In the New York Daily News, Irene Thirer wrote: "It smack [sic] of directional genius—nothing short of this; sensitive performances by a marvelous cast and the most remarkable camera work which has been performed on either silent or sound screen, round about the Hollywood studios. [...] We have praise for everyone concerned with this picture." Variety lauded it as a "harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness".
In a retrospective review, American film critic Pauline Kael commented, "The year 1930 was, of course, a good year for pacifism, which always flourishes between wars; Milestone didn't make pacifist films during the Second World War—nor did anybody else working in Hollywood. And wasn't it perhaps easier to make All Quiet just because its heroes were German? War always seems like a tragic waste when told from the point of view of the losers."
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 97% based on 77 reviews, with an average rating of 9.2/10. The site's critics' consensus reads: "Director Lewis Milestone's brilliant anti-war polemic, headlined by an unforgettable performance from Lew Ayres, lays bare the tragic foolishness at the heart of war." On Metacritic, the film has a Metascore of 91 based on 16 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Controversy and bannings
However, controversy would attend the film's subject matter elsewhere. Due to its anti-war and perceived anti-German messages, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party opposed the film. During and after its German premiere in Berlin on December 4, 1930, Nazi brownshirts under the command of Joseph Goebbels disrupted the viewings by setting off stink bombs, throwing sneezing powder in the air and releasing white mice in the theaters, eventually escalating to attacking audience members perceived to be Jewish and forcing projectors to shut down. They repeatedly yelled out "Judenfilm!" ("Jewish film!") while doing this. Goebbels wrote about one such disruption in his personal diary. The Nazi campaign was successful and German authorities outlawed the film on December 11, 1930. A heavily cut version was briefly allowed in 1931, before the Nazis came to power in 1933 and the film was outlawed again. The film was finally re-released in Germany on April 25, 1952, in the Capitol Theatre in West Berlin.
Between 1930 and 1941, this was one of many films to be banned in Victoria, Australia, on the ground of 'pacifism', by the Chief Censor Creswell O'Reilly. However, it was said to enjoy "a long and successful run" in other states, though the book was banned nationally. The film was also banned in Italy and Austria in 1931, with the prohibition officially raised only in the 1980s, and in France up to 1963.
Awards and honors
1929–1930 Academy Awards
It was the first talkie war film to win Oscars.
- 1930 Photoplay Medal of Honor – Carl Laemmle Jr.
- 1931 Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Language Film – Sound to Lewis Milestone
- 1990 National Film Registry
American Film Institute recognition
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