This year’s release is not the first adaptation of the novel, that honour goes back over 90 years to director Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front – a stark and frank movie about war. The 1930 outing follows the same storyline as the novel, about a group of young German soldiers who are trained for the frontlines of the First World War. Despite their excessive training and gumption, they’re ultimately ill-prepared for the onslaught of the mighty war that will leave most dead, injured, and forever changed by the horrors that they have seen.
I must admit that I was somewhat naïve in my journey into Pre-Code cinema, believing that most war films of the time would be relentlessly gung–ho, and pro-America. Yet most movies during this cinematic period were damnations of the war, and the depression that followed. Outings such as The Eagle And The Hawk, Men Must Fight, and Broken Lullaby focused on the mental and physical toll war had on young men.
All Quiet On The Western Front is perhaps the most damning. The film is a tough watch, following largely our protagonist Paul as he struggles in the midst of the catastrophic warfare. Played expertly by Lew Ayres, Paul is the audience’s conduit through the trappings of battle. From starving soldiers to callous colonels, Paul traipses his naivety through the trenches and slowly loses his innocence. The more death he sees, the more embittered he becomes, changing rapidly whilst trying desperately to cling onto the person he was and the world he knew before, even if he knows they are both gone.
The film offers some respite for Paul – a young French woman who he sleeps with on one miraculous break offers some comfort to the boy. However, it’s tinged with bitter-sweetness. He must go back to fight, leaving the sanctuary of her arms, even if they don’t understand each other’s language.
Milestone’s intense film submerges Paul, and therefore the audience, into the dirt, the grim battles and the absolute bloodshed. All the while the director and his team present anti-war sentiments. In one sequence, the soldiers discuss why they’re going to war in the first place, all unaware as to why they must die for their country – if there were any reason to send these men to the senseless fighting. Milestone’s movie is intense but an utterly breathtaking affair, cleverly skewering the very act of war.
Both director Lewis Milestone and producer Carl J Lemmie won Academy Awards for their feature, and it sparked a sequel in 1936. There have also been two remakes – a television move in 1979 by Delbert Mann, and now this year’s German remake by Edward Berger.
As well-received and as brilliant as these other movies are, each offering their own demanding viewing for new audiences, it’s a testament to Milestone’s work that the 1930 Hollywood outing is still spoken about as one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time.
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