There are any number of clichés associated with war films – the impassioned speechifying of the teacher who’s secure in his patriotism and knows he’ll never have to fight; the raw enlistees coming to blows with a stern sergeant putting them through their training paces; the camera silently tracking through tense trenches, or swooping over explosion strewn fields of war; the battle-soft young recruit who’s just made his first kill fretting over his actions; the visit home to a house now filled with virtual strangers; the weary soul surveying of the new conscripts and barely recognising their previous self; the final poignantly framed shot as the journey we’ve followed comes to an abrupt and heart wrenching end – and many, if not most, of these began here, in Lewis Milestone’s epic adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, telling the story of a bunch of young German men volunteering to face madness and death on the fields of France in the Great War. Spanning almost the entire conflict, All Quiet on the Western Front was the recipient of the third Outstanding Production prize at the 1930 Academy Awards, the first time ever that a film would win both the Best Picture and Best Director “Oscars”.
There is very little heroism in the story of schoolboy Paul Bäumer and the friends he enlists with, the movie instead focussing on their life among the displaced population amid the cruellest form of war. Very much the antecedent of Paths of Glory in its photography and Full Metal Jacket in its trajectory, All Quiet on the Western Front shares an ironic philosophy with Kubrick’s classics and for anyone who has yet to experience this legend of the genre, this latest release proves that in spite of its period longueurs, the film still retains a power and a modernity that makes it a much more accessible watch than many of its contemporaries. Presented here is the Library of Congress’ 21st century restoration, a 128-minute cut that is sadly the most complete we have available, in the best quality of sound and picture, a further twenty-odd minutes having been lost thanks to previous cuts.
For fans of film and students of humanity alike this is an essential purchase, a depiction of the horror that stole almost an entire generation, and a reminder that in pre-enlightened times the bodies fell in their thousands and tens of thousands, in a conflict that treated its combatants as cattle. Milestone’s film, on the other hand, introduces us to a handful of human beings who, despite Remarque’s statement that opens it “may have escaped shells”, were absolutely destroyed by a war that they could never even comprehend the reasons behind. One of cinema’s genuine greats.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: LEWIS MILESTONE / SCREENPLAY: MAXWELL ANDERSON, GEORGE ABBOTT, DEL ANDREWS, C. GARDNER SULLIVAN / STARRING: LOUIS WOLHEIM, LEW AYRES, JOHN WRAY, ARNOLD LUCY, BEN ALEXANDER / RELEASE DATE: 28TH MARCH