by MP Bartley
Still the greatest pacifist film ever made.All Quiet On The Western Front is the kind of film where you feel you have to apologise for it first, before you start to praise it. Yes, the acting performances within are generally of that overly-theatrical 30's style of the time. Yes, the dialogue is frequently trite at worst and terribly on-the-nose at others (it never bothers with a metaphor or allusion when an obvious statement can be made). And, yes, some of Milestone's directorial technique is now clumsy, where once it was dynamic and fresh. But if we are going to criticise it through 21st century eyes, I think we're missing the point somewhat. If anything, the central quality of All Quiet On The Western Front is that its central message (and it's unashamedly a film with a message) is timeless and many of its qualities stand up to the day.
"War - huh! What is it good for?"
It is the outbreak of a world war (a sad irony that even at the time, it was probably made in the belief that another war like it would never be seen) and in Germany a group of young classmates decide they're going to abandon their studies, serve their country and sign up, including Paul (Lew Ayres) and Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), where they fall under the command of grizzled Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim). Together, they train, learn to fight and are thrown into battle where they learn what the true nature of battle truly is.
So, yeah, some of this has dated badly. The jump cuts between the wildly enthusiastic faces of the young men in the class room, deciding to join up, will probably elicit sniggers nowadays and the fact that all these Germans are played by Americans, with no attempt to hide their accents (there are some really "Gosh, darn it!" ones in there, too) doesn't help either.
But these are ultimately irrelevant, because All Quiet On The Western Front is a film that all following war films still tip their hats to, and what's important is that the vast majority of the film still feels as vibrant and hard-hitting as it was undoubtedly meant to at the time of release. It doesn't really have an overriding narrative, as it's more of a reportage with the film following the day-to-day lives of the soldiers trying to survive, although it does eventually come full circle with one character returning to the classroom to inspire a new group of potential soldiers, only finding nothing but emptiness and bitter truths to offer them instead.
Milestone uses the loose journey of the soldiers to throw in many biting details of war and the dehumanisation that it causes - remember, this is a film that invented some of these cliches. We have trenches and soldiers suddenly invaded by a flood of rats, shell-shocked survivors pleading to dead bodies for forgiveness and, most shockingly of all, an explosion that clears to leave the briefest glimpse of a pair of dismembered hands grimly hanging onto a barbed wire fence.
I can't speak for the remake, but this has the feel of a film that hangs out with his characters, even when the camera doesn't show it. The characters, who while fairly generic, change from youths bursting with energy, to pallid, withdrawn shadows of themselves. The dirt of the mud lives under their fingernails and their physical and mental exhaustion is palpable. This is why scenes that stick out as being representative of, shall we say, less refined film and acting techniques of the day, don't really matter. The film has an aching and weary power that only truly great war films achieve.
Milestone's direction is vivid and dynamic, particularly in the battle scenes. The action sweeps from one end of the field to the other, with the Germans advancing, beating a retreat and then launching counter-attacks. It's chaotic, violent, punishing, but splendidly realised throughout. It's a surprisingly cynical and bitter film, too. Hospitals aren't just for recuperation, they're a home for thieves as well, stealing from brothers-in-arms. And an argument with an army chef is as cutting and ridiculous as anything to be found in MASH or Catch-22.For my money, the best anti-war statement when it comes to World War One, is still the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, as sometimes farce is the only way to make sense of the tragic lunacy of it all. But All Quiet On The Western Front and that iconic image of the hand stretching out to the butterfly, still says it better than any Hollywood film ever has since.
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originally posted: 10/16/09 09:03:39