All Quiet on the Western Front - A Century of Film

The war film that every other war film tries to imitate.

Devin on screen

A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a film from every year between 1917 and today. For 1930, we go to war, with All Quiet on the Western Front.

Every war film made since 1930 owes something to All Quiet on the Western Front. The basic structure is now textbook, starting in the relatively neat and orderly, yet punishing world of basic training - right down to a scene where everyone is getting dressed and are then interrupted - and then plunging into the muddy chaos of actual war beating down the characters. Extreme violence - a scene involving severed hands on a wire is still gruesomely effective even after many decades of horror one-upmanship - quiet moments - often punctuated by philosophical conversations. Obligatory scenes where the soldiers meet a crew of local women for romance - here rendered with a tasteful shot of a chair holding a discarded garment - scenes with drinking, scenes lambasting the oblivious old men who perpetuate the war in the first place. It emphasizes the camaraderie among the soldiers and the psychological damage being in a war zone causes. It almost ruins the entire genre, because you realize that no war movie has expressed war better, partially because they’re all looking over its shoulder.

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Every war film is also looking at its notes in terms of the way it’s shot. Lewis Milestone, the director, has a weird habit of shooting through windows, best expressed in the behind-the-shooter viewpoint that is a standard feature in every war film. It’s also expressed in shots of people doing their jobs as soldiers march by outside their work, which leads to the setup of the film - a school class encouraged by their enthusiastic teacher to throw out their workbooks and enlist. It’s a shot that other war films return to frequently, even just for a bit of a contrast, but it’s something that Milestone returns to frequently. He has not met a frame he does not want to shoot something through, and that habit has proven to be a genre hallmark.

The only thing he likes more than shooting through windows is doing tracking shots. Even though this is very early in film history, it still needs to be watched by any student of film just to see how to use tracking shots effectively. There are two main uses here, to establish scale and to establish danger. For scale, moving the shot emphasizes the sheer number of men involved without losing sight of the fact that they are all men, they’re always close enough that they look human no matter how many there are. For danger, having the camera move with a running actor adds to the intensity of the scene, especially as explosions are going off all over the place. Just having someone run could be effective, but it feels as though the audience is running with them, which adds to the sense of danger, especially if an actor falls, for example. War is life or death, and the film emphasizes this through camera movement.

It was a serious film, Milestone kept music off everything but the opening titles for this reason, but the fact that it’s very important does obscure the fact that it’s also very funny. It’s darkly funny, sure, it’s still a war film, but the humor fills a key function - it makes the soldiers matter. Just making them people who will, inevitably, get killed would not get much out of the audiences. But by making them joke around, pull pranks and get totally drunk makes their loss mean something. It’s an ensemble cast, and the film works because as much as it takes its subject seriously, it allows the characters to be more than just noble sacrifices.
The acting is a bit inconsistent, as given that it is a serious film, and one that treats mental trauma very seriously, many actors choose to try out some ACTING! Lew Ayers, who plays Paul and is in most of the movie, takes it as a chance to try out every single acting style available to him, going absurdly over the top in a scene in a hospital, chewing scenery and shouting, while following that with some scenes of impressive subtlety - including a big speech, where he reins himself in even though most people would have the instinct to go big, bold and show off with the material. The real standout of the cast is Louis Wolheim, who plays Kat. He wasn’t an attractive man, looking like he lost a fight with a truck, but acts against his physical type and gets a performance with some real heart in it - one cannot imagine many of his scenes with a different actor.

It has been said that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, because film makes war look exciting. While I definitely have seen some films that drain the excitement out of war - Fires on the Plain from 1957 being an excellent example - it’s not completely wrong. All Quiet on the Western Front is definitely anti-war, but it can’t help the fact that explosions are pretty cool from a distance. It also works with that, the final act is built around the idea that war looks cool from a distance, contrasting the damage done to the people who don’t have to participate it. It anticipates its own criticism.

It’s impossible to call this timeless, it’s a movie which could only exist in 1930 - between the two World Wars, where people were still living with the damage of the first World War and hoping that they could avoid a second, where the Germans could be depicted as sympathetic figures in a war film, after the invention of sound film but before the Hays Code would make it impossible to depict the same level of violence. Thematically, however, it works in any era, and with any war. There’s a good reason why it might be the most copied movie ever made, it sets out to say everything it can on the subject and actually succeeds.

Next time, we watch Dracula, hope it doesn’t… suck.

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