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If “Wings,” the first Oscar-winning war film, celebrates heroism, action, and male camaraderie, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the third Best Picture (for 1929-1930) has a different, anti-war, message. Based on Eric Maria Remarque’s famous novel, the story describes the initial excitement and then disillusionment of a group of German soldiers in the First World War, none of whom survives.
Uncompromising, the film makes a clearly bleak statement of war fighting in trenches, stressing the inanity of war for both sides, the Allies and the German.
“All Quiet” contains many powerful scenes–and speeches. Expressing some German dogface philosophy at the frontlines, Louis Wolheim states: “I tell you how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war coming, you should rope off a big field and sell tickets. And, on the big day, you should take all the kings and cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let them fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.
When Lew Ayres finds a Frenchman (Raymond Griffith) in a shell-hole and stabs him, only to agonize later over what he has done. He says: “When you jumped in here, you were my enemy–and I was afraid of you. But you’re just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me! Oh, no, you’re dead! You’re better off than I am–you’re through–they can’t do anymore to you now. Oh, God! why did they do it to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these unifomrs, you could be my brother, just like Kate and Albert. You’ll have to forgive me, comrade.”
Later on, in the film’s memorable penultimate scene, Ayres sees a butterfly and spontaneously reaches out to touch it, when he is hit with a bullet. One by one, the soldiers are maimed or killed in action.
The anti-war message is loud and clear. Lew Ayres, addressing a classroom full of potential soldiers, says war: “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all.”
“All Quiet on the Western Front” proved to be a huge success at the box-office; it was Universal’s biggest hit. Reissued in the U.S. in 1939, in a substantially truncated version (the initial running time was 145 minutes), the movie enjoyed a second successful run and it’s often shown on TV. In later reissues, the opening commentary, on the horror and futility of war, was excised from the original.
The film was poorly received in Germany prior to Nazism, and was officially banned following Hitler’s rise to power, fearing that the film’s message would have a demoralizing effect on Germany’s youth.
Due to its pacifist message, the film has frequently been banned in countries preparing for war. It’s noteworthy that Milestone didn’t make pacifist film during WWII. Some critics have suggested that perhaps it was easier to make a movie like “All Quiet” because its protagonists-losers were Germans and not Americans.
At the time, the film was hailed as courageous, but as some historians pointed out, this was a pacifist film launched profitably during a pacifist period. To be truly “courageous,” the movie should have been made when the country was involved in the midst of a war. The American Legion of Decency was concerned about the sympathetic portrayal of Germans.
Most viewers responded to the film’s noble message the futility of war, any war, as one reviewer noted in 1930: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy the master print, reproduce it in every nation to show every year until the word “war” is taken out of the dictionary.— Emanuel Levy
Thu February 5, 2015, 7:30 only, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)
USA, 1930, English, B&W, 136 min, 35mm, 1.33:1, NR, 35mm