Thursday, February 20, 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Young German students are urged to enlist for honor and glory, then find out the true meaning of trench warfare.

I had not seriously considered this movie because I mistakenly presumed it was either German with subtitles or, even worse, silent. I also thought it was very long. TCM aired it recently and because it sparked an interest with my 17 year old anti-war military buff son, we watched it together. It's 2 hours fifteenish run time was reasonable for this short-attention-span viewer.

I expect modern HD movies to wow me away visually, what with their CGI and other tricks, but this low-def, 4:3 aspect, black and white movie was impressive. Now when a crane shot spins 360 around someones head, goes up their butt crack, then pans back into outer space, we know a fat guy on a million dollar computer worked the weekend. Here, when soldiers march out of a building that then explodes, we know that the friggin' building the actors walked out of friggin' blew up! This added touch of reality makes all the difference.

The principle message of this story is that nobody wants war, nobody needs it, and the empty headed motormouths back home spouting patriotic clap-trap need to spend an evening stringing barbed wire during a down pour while the enemy strafed them with gunfire. And that message was delivered crystal.

Being an early talkie (the first sound Best Picture winner), the acting styles were clearly influenced by the pantomime era. As such, it is easy to typify the acting as terrible. Mostly because much of it was ... terrible. But these were style choices of the time and later in the film there are nuanced scenes and quiet transformations that are quite remarkable. When the main character goes home on leave and hears the bravado from his father and others in a bar, the restraint in Lew Ayres' performance was wonderful.

The gruff but lovable Sargent Kat (Louis Wolheim) would die a year later from stomach cancer. Uncredited student Arthur Gardner who went on to fame as a TV producer, is a hundred and three. The director looked around the Los Angeles area for real German war veterans to insure uniform and tactic accuracy and found so many he hired some as extras.

The anti-war message was preaching to the choir in my household, but it was a fantastic film. Had it a clearer soundtrack it's impact might even be greater. It's unflinching look at the realities of war, pre-code gore, and surprising performances make this a triumph. AMRU 4.
"I think it's more a kind of fever. Nobody wants it in particular, and then all at once, there it is. We didn't want it. The English didn't want it. And here we are fighting."

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