Saturday, March 7, 2015

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front; war / drama, USA, 1930; D: Lewis Milestone, S: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray

World War I. After a propaganda speech by an ultra-nationalist teacher in a German school, several students, among them the naive Paul, enlist in the army to fight in the war. After a training, they are sent to the Western front and experience the hell of war: explosions kill most of them, whereas hunger, rain and dirt make it unbearable for them even during peace time. Paul kills a French soldier who jumps into his trench, but regrets it. After almost all of his friends were either killed or became crippled, Paul spots a butterfly on the battlefront. As he reaches for it, a sniper kills him.

One of the milestones of early cinema and of the war movie genre, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist novel of the same title, "All Quiet on the Western Front" is an undated, raw, fresh and powerful anti-war film that tells about some things that are otherwise frequently ignored by other war movies. It has two unforgettable sequences: in one, the young soldier Paul kills a man for the first time, a French soldier who jumped into his trench, with a knife. But then he realizes what he has done and says this to the deceased man: "But you are a man just like I am, and I killed you. Forgive me comrade... Oh God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, the two of us." He then finds a photo of the man's family and says: "I'll write to your wife. I promise she will not want for anything. And I'll help her, and your parents, too". You are never going to see something like this in any other war film. The other one is the penultimate sequence, where Paul spots a butterfly on the ground and reaches for it, amazed of the contrast of such beauty and innocence in all of the ugliness and degenerate hate around him. Lewis Milestone crafts the war sequences with dynamic, energetic style, but some of the peace moments seem strangely stiff and bland by comparison, especially in some schematic scenes where there is too much talk, whereas some subplots are unnecessary (the men who find the French women on the other side of the river bank; Paul's mother...), which is why the long, 150 minute cut is actually weaker, and the shorter, 120 minute cut better and far more concise. Either way, this is a classic and contains some bravura directed moments.


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