Page 1 of 3
The 1930 Oscar-winner gets its Blu-ray debut, and it comes with a silent version of the film that is, in fact, "all quiet"....
Universal / 133 Minutes / 1930 / Unrated / Street Date: February, 14, 2012
There’s a scene in a recent war movie that really takes it to former President Bush over his war in Iraq. The troops are enjoying a long overdue rest and espousing their views on the nature of modern warfare. This is the exchange:
“Every full grown emperor needs one war to make him famous.”
“The generals, too. They need war.”
“And manufacturers! They get rich.”
It’s totally true. And Bush should have taken it to heart. Oh, wait. Did I say these soldiers were talking about Bush? Actually, they were talking about the Kaiser, and the pontificating troops are enjoying a break in the action during World War One! It’s a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1930 anti-war classic and the first film to earn Universal a Best Picture Oscar. We’ve all seen anti-war movies and a lot of the older ones don’t hold up (included in that list, for me personally, is Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1937 anti-WW1 film). But All Quiet…, directed by Lewis Milestone (Of Mice and Men) is absolutely fabulous. Not only is it completely relevant to the Iraq War (and most, but not all, other wars), but it stands as one of the most all-encompassing looks at the experience of a soldier.
The film is based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque and one can sense that his war experiences are fresh and still sting. He’s managed to hit upon all angles of his war experience, before, during and after. The movie stars Lew Aryes as Paul, a German student driven to enlist after hearing the fervent, nationalistic ramblings of his schoolteacher (“Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you”, he says). Paul and the other new recruits are shipped off to a French town, where the old-timers, the ones who know how war really works, gaze upon them as being fresh “from the turnip patch.” One of the veterans is Tjaden, who fires off some pretty cynically funny dialogue considering this is 1930. But the key member of the cast, the person who’ll teach these newbies all they need to know to stay alive. Is Kat (Louis Wolheim). A grizzly, pug of a man who looks like he was fighting long before he enlisted, Kat knows how to procure food in a barren land, how to not get shot in a bullet-riddled warzone and generally, how to escape with your sanity. And these boys quickly discover they need the help. One of them pees his pants upon hearing gunfire and Kat is there with “never mind. It's happened to better men than you.” A soldier carries a dead recruit back to camp and Kat is there with, “Why did you risk your life bringing him in?” and “Now, don't any of you ever do that again.”
Adapting the novel, Oscar nominated writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews create a masterful mashup of wartime experiences without seeming like a checklist. Hunkered down in an underground bunker, Paul and his friends, who are young, but growing old fast, start to have nervous breakdowns, have nightmares about of trench warfare, and fend off rats. Once the troops are able to leave the bunker, the battles begin. And I don’t care what CGI-festooned battle scenes you’ve seen. The infantry charges in this film are amazing. And they’re amazing because they have no CGI. They’re blunt and real and show the soldiers yelling as they charge and running straight, but all over the place. The side tracking shot of soldiers running down the battlefield will be imitated for decades. And the overhead shots are equally great, because they give us a sense of scale and how the soldiers yelled like they were energized, but ran like they were a little confused and a lot scared.
After this huge battle is when the soldiers relax under a tree and recite the dialogue at the beginning of this article, just having convinced the company cook to release his complement of beans. Kat, of course, has his famous theory as to how wars should be fought, if all were fair. “Whenever there's a big war coming on, you should rope off a big field. And on the big day you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let them fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.”
If only it were so. Sudden death is a big part of the movie, but slow, painful death is also on offer. A great scene has Paul visiting the bedside of his friend, who complains that all the toes on his right foot hurt. What he’s about to realize is that his right leg has been amputated. Before he dies he’ll see friends and strangers vie for his belongings. Not only did someone steal his watch, but his friend wants his boots, figuring he’ll never need them again. And this was before the poor guy even kicked.
With his company decimated and most of his friends dead, Paul gets a chance to return home on temporary leave. But the outside world is different now. Nobody can appreciate what he’s gone through. In a scene that made me think of how Vietnam vets were treated upon their return, Paul’s father and his mates argue in a pub about how the war should be fought. But what the hell do they know? They weren’t on the frontlines. They’re just armchair generals pretending they know more than Paul. And, in a scene I was salivating to see, Paul returns to the classroom of the jingoistic teacher who convinced him to enlist. The result is worth waiting for.
There is so much going on in this movie, it’s fantastic. Emotionally, the film isn’t very subtle, but it’s very powerful. When Paul kills a Frenchman in a trench, he begs forgiveness from the lifeless corpse. His pleading would be considered too melodramatic and blunt for today’s more realistic style of acting, but it indisputably works. In fact, the whole damn movie works. In 2006, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Imo Jima was hailed because it saw World War II through Japanese eyes. That’s fine, but 75 years earlier, All Quiet on the Western Front saw war through the eyes of the enemy, too. Maybe the film wasn’t shot in German, but the intent was there. Showing that whether you’re friend or foe, war is the same for those laying in fear and boredom in the trenches. As a grunt, you have no idea what the grander plan is, what the generals are thinking, whether they see you as pawns or people. Your job is to survive, maybe for your country, definitely for your family.