Directed by: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay by: Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
My rating: 8/10
IMDb rating: 8.1
The Big House
The Love Parade
Synopsis: After a rousing speech by a teacher, a group of German schoolboys enlist in the army. There they discover that war is not the patriotic ideal they’d been led to believe.
Where would the film industry be without war? All Quiet on the Western Front, adapted from the book by Erich Maria Remarque, is only the third film to win best picture, but it’s already the second war film.
By now, we’ve seen every military trope imaginable, so it’s astonishing that a film so old could still feel fresh. Well before the “war is hell” Vietnam movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, this one was showing the world the trauma of it. It’s a story of innocence lost, and, surprisingly, told from the perspective of the Germans.
It takes place near the end of the war, and while there is a plot, it’s mostly a collection of moments showing us the experiences of these soldiers. They lose friends, they become hardened and they try to appreciate the little moments of joy they can.
It’s also a very honest story that focused on the worst parts of the war – there were no heroics here. Just, as the old saying goes, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
The German soldiers were all sympathetic, and the director wasn’t patronising in his portrayal, as can often happen in films from the enemy’s POV these days.
It showed the war for what it was: a waste of life.
As I’ve mentioned before, our storytelling techniques have become more refined now (this movie is 86 years old, after all) but the emotional stuff still gives you a lump in the throat, even if the delivery seems hokey from our standpoint.
Some of the more emotional scenes are, unfortunately, quite dated, as the actors contort their faces in almost laughable expressions to display their inner anguish, and some dead characters look cartoonish, but this should be understood in the context of how films used to be – one assumes they modeled themselves mostly on theatre, and even silent film, when expressions and gestures had to be exaggerated to be understood.
If you can look past that, you’ll see, at the heart of it, a heartbreaking story of disillusionment and the loss of innocence.
The bottom line: A strong recommendation, and not just for war movie fundis.
For the other pieces in this series:
Best picture odyssey
Best picture winner 1: Wings (1927)
Best picture winner 2: The Broadway Melody (1929)