Directed by Lewis Milestone
A Universal – International Presentation
US, 132 minutes
Starring Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Slim Summerville, William Bakewell
Today we are three years from the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event that sparked World War I and plunged Europe into a state of turmoil for four years. While there have been enough World War II films made to create a whole genre just for them, only a handful of World War I films have been made. The two most important to American cinema – Lewis Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front and Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel, Paths of Glory – were both made over half-a-century ago. In the case of Milestone’s picture, it has been 81 years since its release.
All Quiet… revolves around the story of a group of young German solders, spearheaded by Paul, who enthusiastically enlist in the army only to realize the horror of war. The film is structured in a most interesting way, considering that it was made in a time when films rarely even reached the 90-minute mark and this one goes over two hours. The writing by George Abbott and Maxwell Anderson (which is oddly credited as dialog by both, plus adaptation by Anderson and screen story [whatever that means] to Abbott) is very episodic. The best of these is easily Paul’s leave. His trip home reveals that the elders in town have not changed their opinions of the war, despite the fact that little had changed and everything was leading to a stalemate. His confrontation with his old school teacher, who is still spewing the same mindless spiel, is the most poignant and it is here that Lew Ayres really shines.
However, aside from Ayres, these acting performances are very hard to watch today. The best way to describe the acting style in the very, very early sound period is hokey. In fact, the older actors in this film seem to have not gotten the memo that they were in a sound picture. Even Ayres’ acting can seem a little ineffective, like his screaming of jubilation when he goes back into the hospital after fearing that he would be taken to the room of dead bodies. This is the number one reason why this film is hard to watch today. Ayres’ style will serve him well as Dr. Kildare, but as a battle-worn soldier, he leaves much to be desired. The overall acting style is so different and so theatrical compared to that of the classic Hollywood stars who began cropping up in the mid-’30s that it impedes any way of enjoying the picture.
Still, the reason to watch the picture over 80 years later is for the amazing technical innovation. The battle scenes, filled with intricate camera movements and fantastic special effects, are unbelievable. In Paths of Glory, Kubrick practically re-shot them, since even in 1955, it was hard to get shots to be any better. (Although, there’s just something about Kirk Douglas being involved that makes Kubrick’s sequences better.) You also have to admit that even with all the hokey acting, Milestone is still telling a fantastic story. Sure, some sequences are incredibly useless and any time Paul isn’t on the screen feels wasted, the story of idealistic young men getting hit hard by the realities of war is timeless.
Universal’s 2007 DVD release of the film is a bit of a downer. The Robert Osborne (from TCM) intro is just 2-and-a-half minutes long and he only talks about Lew Ayres, barely mentioning anything else about the film itself. The included trailer is not an original one, but one fora re-release of the film and completely ignores what it’s really about. If there ever was a film that called for a scholar commentary track, it is this one, although anything more would have been nice. Finally, the transfer, from the Library of Congress’ restoration, is pretty good for a film this old.
The Verdict: It’s hard to recommended this film for beyond one viewing. It is one of those Best Pictures with a message and although there are some fantastic sequences – particularly that last shot – the acting is just too dated to enjoy on a regular basis. It is necessary viewing for any film buff, but you should only decide whether it’s worth owning after seeing it first.