81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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All Quiet On the Western Front

August 22nd, 2009 · 1 Comment · 1929-1930, Adaptation, All Quiet On the Western Front, Black and White, Carl Laemmle Jr., Clara Bow, Drama, Universal Pictures, War

All Quiet On the Western FrontWar is hell.

That’s the theme of the 1930 Oscar-winning movie All Quiet On the Western Front.

Film historian Robert Osbourne introduces the movie in a brief DVD featurette by saying this: What you’re about to see is one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made…one critic wrote about it, ‘This is a movie which should be shown in every language for every nation to show every year until the word war is taken out of the dictionaries.”

History of the Academy Award WinnersNathalie Fredrik and Auriel Douglas, in their book History of the Academy Award Winners, echoed Osbourne’s comments:

Made from Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet On the Western Front remains, today, the most uncompromising anti-war film ever made. Germany banned it until the 1960s. Never once did director Lewis Milestone let the slightest hint of glorification of war creep into his grim World War I film, one of the first talkies made.

Charles Matthews, in his book Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More Than 2,400 Movies Nominated For Academy Awards, writes:

This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel was the third winner for best picture, but unlike the first two, Wings and Broadway Melody, it sill looks like a classic and not just a transitional effort as Hollywood edged into the sound era.

The Great FilmsBosley Crowther, in his book The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures, writes:

All Quiet tells the story of a German boy who is aroused by the fervent talk of his schoolmaster to believe that in war the human spirit has its greatest opportunity to express its nobility, and, at the same time, the individual can best serve the fatherland…More strongly than by any previous war film, save perhaps The Big Parade, the viewer was pulled into this experience, made to identify almost totally with the German lad and his comrades. Such complete self-association with soldiers in German uniforms was, indeed, a new sensation for American audiences…Inevitably, this picture – the haunting title of which implied the irony in the familiar phrase so often used in daily press dispatches, “All quiet on the Western front” – staggered observers accustomed to some sentimental reprieve, some hope, in films of war.

My thoughts on the above statements, as well as the content of the movie:

Anti-war sentiments are noble. However, war is not an aberration. It has been part of humanity since the beginning of time. This movie was released in 1930. World War I had been fought a dozen years earlier. World War II was a decade off, followed by the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the War in Iraq. All Quiet On the Western Front has, arguably, been seen by millions of people. Other anti-war films have followed in its wake, films which have also been seen by millions of people.

Yet, wars have not ceased. Violence and conflict have not diminished. If anything, they have increased.

Conclusion: War is not an elective. It is not entered into on a whim. William Tecumseh Sherman is believed to have coined the phrase, “War is hell.” And he’s right. It is. But it cannot be wiped out simply by viewing horrific images of it. Why? Because war is inevitable as long as there are people in the world. Political, philosophical, and religious ideologies are the catalyst for war because, sometimes, they are in direct conflict with similar ideologies in other countries. Or in other neighborhoods. Or in other homes.

So it doesn’t really matter how realistic this movie is. Or how terrible it paints war to be. War is inherent to the human condition. Furthermore, passivism is never the answer when someone faces you down with a bayonet or a machine gun. When families or nations are threatened, passivism will always take a back seat because self preservation trumps all.

Incidentally, Ernest Hemingway was in a couple of wars. And their effects can be read in nearly every single one of his books. Indeed, Hemingway is quoted as saying, “The wound combat makes in you, as a writer, is a very slow-healing one.” (The Good Life According to Hemingway, by A. E. Hotchner.) If anyone needs an example of what war can do to a person, just pick up one of Hemingway’s novels.

Oscar At the Academy AwardsRobert Osbourne, in his book Oscar At the Academy Awards, writes about another noteworthy aspect to this particular Academy Award ceremony:

A new voting rule was adopted – both nominations and final awards were voted by the entire Academy membership. No longer did a small handful of judges make such big decisions. The awards were becoming too important to trust to the judgment of the very few. Now, the whole industry was beginning to take part. The reputation was beginning to grow, too., with the press and the public. That seven-pound gold statue was beginning to wield a weighty power.

And now, the movie…

Carl Laemmle
Erich Maria Remarque
Produced By
Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Adaptation & Dialogue
Maxwell Anderson
Screen Play
George Abbot
Del Andrews

Kat…………………Louis Wolheim
Paul………………..Lewis Ayres
Himmelstoss…….John Wray
Kantorek………….Arnold Lucy
This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…
2 hours, 12 minutes

As has been written for nearly 80 years, All Quiet On the Western Front is a powerful movie, relentless in its hatred for war. Soldiers are killed, limbs are lost, bullets fly, bombs explode, lives are shattered – all the gruesomeness of war is depicted in epic scale and minute detail.
I found the movie to be interesting for a number of reasons, notably: (a) The camera work was amazing. Some of the tracking shots – like the view over a trench full of men – lasted so long that I wonder how they were accomplished, (b) the epic scale was remarkable. Entire battlefields full of running, falling, screaming men – dodging explosions and gunfire – fill the screen and recoil the mind, (c) the acting is first-rate considering “talkies” were still in their infancy (which is ironic given the serious subject matter of this movie), and (d) despite the movie’s robust 2-hour-and-12-minute girth, it moved at a brisk pace, not only because the scenes had vibrancy but also because they were paced much differently than in The Broadway Melody. Long scenes were interspersed with short scenes. And every scene seemed just about right. I didn’t think (as I did watching The Broadway Melody), “Gee, will this scene never end?”

The scope of this movie is massive, with more bombs exploding more often than in any other war movie I can remember. It’s relentless. But it also appears dangerous. There were boards and bricks flying through the air right next to actors. I wonder how many were injured or deafened because of the mayhem?

Another note regarding the movie’s scope: this was long before the days of Computer-Generated Graphics. So when the director tracks a field full of men marching, there really were a field full of men marching, and there really was a field. Back then, things had to be done the old-fashioned way, which added to the realism. And, probably, cost. Movies like this couldn’t be shot today, which makes such movies even more precious as moments in time.

Finally, the ending of the movie will cause you to never look at butterflies the same way again.

One name that stands out in this film is that of Carl Laemmle, Jr. I remember him in conjunction with Dracula star Bela Lugosi. (I’m a big Lugosi fan.) It was during Hollywood’s heyday that Laemmle, Jr., produced some of the great horror movies of all time. From the Wikipedia entry:

Carl Laemmle Jr. (28 April 1908 – 24 September 1979) was in charge of production at Universal Studios from about 1928 to 1936. He was the son of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures. Laemmle, called “Junior”, by his friends and family, developed a reputation for spending too much money at the studios on several films that did not earn back their cost. During his tenure, Universal had great success with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Dracula (1931), Waterloo Bridge (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Imitation of Life (1934) (a film which Laemmle Jr. did not personally produce), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Clara BowAll Quiet On the Western Front, although a fine movie, is not one I could watch again. I don’t enjoy the subject matter. It’s way too heavy.

Wings, the first Oscar-winning movie, also depicted war in an unflattering, realistic way. Yet, the onslaught was interspersed with moments of lightness, even comedy. And any war movie that features Clara Bow as a corpsman is one I could definitely watch again.

All Quiet On the Western Front is the first Oscar-winning movie that’s an adaptation (a movie based on a novel or novella). It won’t be the last.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Lisa

    Just finished watching this one. Loved it. If I were to watch it again it would be to try to pull away from the story and watch the effects.

    I noticed the great editing. Being a video editor, that is my focus. Really well done.

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