All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
screenplay George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Dell Andrews
based on the novel by Eric Maria Remarque

Everyone remembers the last few feet of film in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front.  It reprises an earlier sequence when the soldiers we know march off, away from the camera.  Each, in his turn, looks back over his shoulder at us.  At the end we have seen most of them die, and we feel guilty, even about the less likable ones.

Watching the film again, the viewer finds the earlier sequence already heartbreaking.  We remember each of these young men, the lovable and the unlikable; and we know that almost all of them will die.

The opening sequence in the hometown of these German soldiers is masterful.  The sight of a most theatrical arch (part of the town plaz) is balanced by the filmic introduction of the characters and a graphic exposition.  The National Board of Review said at the time of the original release:  “A magnificent cinematic equivalent of the book…to Mr. Milestone goes the credit of effecting the similitude in united and dynamic picture terms.  The sound and image mediums blend as one, as a form of artistic expression that only the motion [picture] screen can give.”

Indeed credit must go as well to the writers who have done one of the screen’s most memorable jobs of adaptation  —  a magnificent achievement in adaptation.  The first half of Remarque’s novel is largely impressionistic and not particularly linear.  With flashbacks and visualizations of description, through selection and combining, the adapters created a continuous story suitable for its era’s audience while retaining an overwhelming sense of the war in which  —  and through which  —  all that we see occurs.

Milestone’s vigorous camera (photography by Arthur Edeson, editing by Milton Carruth and Edgar Adams) moves as few cameras in Hollywood were moving in 1930.  It captures the bombardment, the rattling machine guns, the rats, the rain that always drenches war, and the mud.  The number of the dead.  And the body parts.  The track channels the noise and noises of war.

Kimmerich’s Boots.  The dying Kimmerich’s good boots make a motif on film as on the page.  Müller lusts after them, and he will eventually pass them on.  Our Everyman Paul Baümer is present for Kimmmerich’s death and, leaving the hospital afterwards, launches joyously into a glad-to-be-alive run.  In what today appears a lapse, Paul, back in his barracks, delivers a monologue to one of his fellows explaining how he felt, telling us what we have already seen and know.  Was this verbalizing in the original silent footage (with extended titles) shot when All Quiet was planned as a silent film?  These thoughts he shares ARE in the novel and, as expressed in the film, let us know succinctly that he thought about sex, among other things.  This is psychologically sound, and how else convey it?  The clumsiness of it may be in part the fault of the acting.

The Girl on the Poster.  The continuing and forceful visual style of All Quiet is evident in the café scene where the soldiers have gathered to get drunk and look for women.  Our man Paul Baümer and buddy Albert Kropp sit at a table behind which is a poster featuring a soldier with his girl.  Kropp tears the soldier from the picture, leaving just the girl available for their fantasy intentions.  The action will be repeated later in the hospital where Kropp tears the leg he has lost from an earlier photo of himself before his wounding.  Actually neither Milestone nor the screen writers can be credited with the eloquent mutilation of the poster.  The action is Remarque’s, in his novel.  The later incident in the hospital is an inventive addition of the film.

A remarkable shot that everyone who has seen All Quiet remembers is that of grenade smoke clearing and revealing a pair of hands  —  only a pair of hands  — clinging to barbed wire.  This too is precisely described by Remarque in his remarkable book.

The Leaders in the Arena.  Three conversational bits in three different moments in the novel are gathered and combined by the screenwriters into the scene in the film in which the soldiers wonder why they are killing Frenchmen they have never met and can have nothing against.  This grows into one of All Quiet‘s memorable set pieces as the soldiers, talking together, decide that in future, national leaders angry with each other should fight out their disagreement personally face to face before an arena audience and let the better nation win.  In all my viewings of All Quiet, I have never sat with an audience that did not applaud this proposal.

The French Girls.  The scene with the French girls pleased its original pre-Code audience and surprised the late 40s-audience upon the film’s re-release.  Its eroticism seems mild enough today  —  nay, innocent.  Paul and two chums swim naked (this is 1930; we see the men only from the waist up) across a narrow river and approach the farm house where they are expected, bearing their clothes in front of them, much to the delight of the three French girls watching them from within.  After food and wine, the camera reveals the dining table in an empty room with scattered clothes, then settles on the open door of one room from which we hear Paul’s voice.  He speaks to the French girl of what this night will mean to him, an isolated night, away from war and death.

Why does the world love Paul Baümer?  Why did Americans love this German soldier such a short time after so devastating a war?  Lew Ayers’ stylized acting is discomfiting at times.  Yet we always like him and are always pulling for him.  We suffer with him when on his brief leave home he is alone and isolated as his acquaintances and even his family cannot grasp the horrors he knows and make their ignorant assumptions about his experiences.  He has lived only twenty years and is older than all of them.

This is not an actors’ film; and the theme and content, the photography and editing and the sounds of war on the track defeat the thespian shortcomings.  Remarque’s creation  —  Paul and his world  —  win, and win us.

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Actor note:  In his supporting role as Kat, Second Company’s sergeant, Louis Wolheim creates a warm and enduring character.  This viewing of All Quiet on the Western Front appears to invalidate the smart-aleck evaluation of Wolheim in The Racket on Rick’s Flicks for 8/7/15.

Until then,
See you at the movies,