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Men destroyed by war Men destroyed by war
by Asa Butcher
2006-10-28 10:14:06
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All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Universal Pictures, 1930

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...

These are the opening words of All Quiet on the Western Front, Hollywood's greatest ever anti-war movie, winner of the 1930 Academy Award Best Picture and deservingly restored by the Library of Congress' Motion Picture Conservation Center. Its status as a cinematic masterpiece has been assured forever, but have you ever taken the time to sit down and watch it?

Over four decades before anti-war movies, such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and MASH, Lewis Milestone directed a film that would cause as much controversy as it did acclaim. Italy banned it until 1956, 1930's Nazis disrupted screenings by shouting martial slogans and releasing rats into cinemas, and it was one of many films to be banned in 1930's Australia by the Chief Censor Creswell O'Reilly.

Lewis Milestone, future director of Marlon Brando's Mutiny on the Bounty and Frank Sinatra's Ocean's Eleven, took Erich Maria Remarque's famous novel Im Westen nichts Neues and recreated the utter cruelty of the First World War from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old German recruit, whose head has been filled with his teacher's jingoistic ideas of fighting and dying for your country.

An Academy Award for Direction was the prize Milestone received for All Quiet on the Western Front, which was made for the considerable sum of $1.25m. The trivia surrounding this film reveals that he hired former German Army veterans living in the Los Angeles area to ensure authenticity and his attention to detail even meant that the chief sanitary inspector of Orange County, California, insisted that production be halted while he checked the sanitary conditions of the trenches built for the film.

The realism is evident on the screen and the scenes in which some of the 2000 extras go 'over the top' leave you breathless from the carnage. The scene that begins with a wave of French solders traversing No-Man's Land to attack the German trenches and then the counterattack locks your eyes open wide and dries your mouth making it hard to swallow. Men are mown down by machine guns, bayonets gut their victims, grenades rip limbs from torsos and it is all quite explicit, due to the absence of censorship in the early-30s.

No-Man's Land, life in the trenches and the expressions on the young men's faces are clearly captured due to the incredible cinematography by Arthur Edeson, who was nominated for an Academy Award. In fact, Edeson was nominated once again 14 years later for his work on Casablanca, but again failed to win, although his body of work will live on through films like The Maltese Falcon, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and many more.

The actual plot of the film follows a class of German schoolboys who join the army and soon witness death and mutilation all around them. The class are slowly killed in action and other harrowing methods, yet one boy stands above the rest: Paul Bäumer (Lewis Ayres). He is their leader in the classroom and carries this role into the trenches, with the help of Sergeant Stanislas Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), better known as Kat. There is no doubt in my mind that Kat is one of cinema's greatest fictional soldiers and an obvious inspiration for many others that followed.

Even though the film is about a squad of Germans, the film is American and the cast is primarily American but this does not harm the film in any way. Having said that, my mind was totally absorbed by the hell unfolding on the screen and I was so angry at the blind patriotism Paul has to face upon his return home that accents were far from my consideration, "You still think it's beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it's better not to die at all."

After watching All Quiet on the Western Front, you cannot help wondering if more people had seen this film it would have created a few more pacifists in the world, of which you can never have too many. I don't know if the United Nations is allowed to have an official movie, but my suggestion is to use this disquieting vision of war and let it speak for itself.

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