The phrase "war is hell" has become a tired cliche, but its overuse can't dull the devastating truth those three simple words impart. World War I was an especially brutal conflict, marked by a stratospheric casualty count and the indelible mental and physical battle scars worn by the "lucky" troops who survived the intense shelling, air strikes, filthy trenches, and savage hand-to-hand combat. As a German soldier, author Erich Maria Remarque witnessed firsthand much of the horror that defined that war, and his later depiction of it stands as a subtle yet unabashed diatribe against such senseless violence and destruction. If one book alone could be credited with spawning the anti-war movement, it would have to be 'All Quiet on the Western Front.'
The novel became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1927, and several studios scrambled to secure the film rights. Carl Laemmle, Jr., head of Universal (at that time known more for low-budget, undistinguished fare than expensive prestige pictures), placed the highest bid, and hoped the adaptation of Remarque's book would enhance his company's reputation. Laemmle hired such esteemed Broadway writers as Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott to pen the screenplay, tapped Oscar-winner Lewis Milestone to direct, and spent well over a million dollars - a princely sum in those days - to recreate the massive spectacle of war.
The risk was substantial - Universal's future hung in the balance - but the gamble paid off handsomely for Laemmle. 'All Quiet on the Western Front' premiered to great critical and popular acclaim and remains a staggering achievement - massive in scope, yet surprisingly intimate and affecting. And when one factors in the challenges and limitations of early sound technology, the feat becomes all the more remarkable. Justly honored with the 1930 Academy Award for Best Picture (the first non-musical talking feature to take the prize), 'All Quiet on the Western Front' also earned Milestone a second Best Director Oscar, and was nominated for writing and cinematography.
Awards, however, are only a minor indicator of a movie's worth. What sets 'All Quiet on the Western Front' apart from similar genre entries is the bleakness of its story, the disillusionment of its characters, and its passionate and uncompromising anti-war message. Produced during peacetime, the film flaunts no propagandist agenda, so there's no need for scenes that glorify combat or spotlight outrageous acts of heroism. With its sober outlook and straightforward presentation, 'All Quiet on the Western Front' is one of the few war movies produced before 1970 that tells it like it is, pulling no punches in its depiction of the mental and physical agony that soldiers must face and endure. And by focusing on German soldiers, who largely comprised the American enemy in World War I, the film adopts a compelling humanistic slant, proving the horrors of war are the same on both sides of the battle lines.
Instead of following a battalion, fleet, or air corps on various missions, 'All Quiet on the Western Front' bucks the trend again by largely concentrating its gaze on one man, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), who, in typical German fashion, is inspired to fight by the rousing, manipulative orations of his schoolmaster, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). Yet what begins as an idealistic, enthusiastic endeavor soon turns sour, as a sadistic drill instructor (John Wray) browbeats the green recruits, who must then battle such foes as fatigue, hunger, and inactivity in addition to the very real enemy forces that relentlessly stalk them. The daily stress, physical and emotional pain, and arduous struggle just to survive quickly take their toll, and as days turn into years, the gusto and bravado that defined "the iron men of Germany" morph into frustration and despair. Paul can't even remember why he's fighting or what he's fighting for, and why he's supposed to systematically hate a whole breed of men simply because their nationality differs from his own. In one of the film's most stirring scenes, Paul, on a brief furlough, visits Kantorek, who still strives to brainwash a new crop of potential soldiers, and shares with the group his true feelings about the "glory" and "glamour" of war and hypocrisy of the German ideal, much to his mentor's stunned disbelief. The notion of sacrificing one's life for the Fatherland may sound romantic, but as Paul and the movie so bitterly tell and show us, it's all merely waste.
'All Quiet on the Western Front' also holds the distinction of depicting the barbarity of trench warfare more accurately than almost any other film. The claustropobic holes could be a safe haven one minute and a narrow pit of death the next, and Milestone recreates the chaos and horror with uncompromising realism. We see how the soldiers react to the rigors of battle, the pain of being wounded, and the devastating sight of their comrades dying inches away. We see the tension on their naive faces, feel the awful dread and uncertainty that weigh upon their battered shoulders, and witness the deplorable conditions they had to endure. When Paul stabs a French soldier to death, his agonized reaction at taking a life - any life - encapsulates the movie's anti-war message and reinforces the fact that war is not a boy's game, but rather a man's cross to bear, and an experience that will mold, change, and haunt every soldier forever.
It's a tribute to the film that we view these intrepid warriors not as Germans, but as human beings - an ironic twist that contradicts the conditioning Hollywood has perpetuated over the course of decades of manipulative war movies, in which Germans were painted as evil incarnate. Without even realizing it, we find ourselves rooting for them, not necessarily to win the war, but just to stay alive. With subtle grace, this deeply affecting film makes us realize every life matters, and country, race, or creed can't change that.
The gritty battle scenes dazzle with their impressive scope and scale, as well as their fluid camera movement (a tricky process in the early sound era), but more often than not the power of 'All Quiet on the Western Front' emanates from quieter moments and the close-ups of careworn faces exhibiting exhaustion, fear, pain, and dazed shock. There's also no romance in the movie, no girl back home who provides a respite from battle. At one point, the soldiers casually connect with a few village women, but there's no emotional bonding; any unions are all about escape, release, and soothing the numbness that has ravaged their bodies and minds.
'All Quiet on the Western Front' may chronicle a war that happened almost a century ago, but its humanistic and pacifistic tone remains vital and timeless, and this classic, brilliantly executed adaptation still has the power to move us spiritually and emotionally. (The last two scenes are unforgettable.) The world may never heed its message, but thanks to the permanence of film, its voice will never be silenced.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'All Quiet on the Western Front' comes packaged in one of Universal's handsome, classy digibooks, a hallmark of the studio's 100th Anniversary Collector's Series. Tucked inside the volume's front cover is a 50GB Blu-ray disc, while the inside back cover houses a standard-def DVD. In between the two are 40 full-color, stylishly constructed pages packed with background information about the film. In addition to a thoughtful introduction by historian Leonard Maltin, the book contains brief bios of director Milestone and notable cast members, poster art, photos from an array of deleted scenes that no longer exist, items from Universal's in-house newspaper that pertain to 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' reproductions of archival correspondence from Milestone, Howard Hughes, and others, and rare photos. There's also a cast and crew listing, and a rundown of honors the movie received.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. Once the disc is inserted in the player, the movie begins immediately; no promos or previews precede it. To access the main menu, you must press the "menu" key on your remote. The menu, complete with Universal's ticker, then appears over the running film.
Films from the early 1930s often fall victim to decay, so the magnificent job Universal has done with 'All Quiet on the Western Front' is truly a revelation. From the first frames of the opening credits, it's evident substantial work has been done to refurbish and revitalize this classic movie, and the results often inspire unmitigated awe. Almost all dirt, scratches, and stray marks have been removed, leaving an almost pristine print. Grain, however, remains, and though it's always visible, it never overwhelms the image. So many movies from the early sound era possess a distinctive, highly textured look that's often distracting, but Universal technicians have managed to tone down the grain just enough, so it's better integrated into the picture.
Contrast and depth are superb, and though background details aren't quite as sharp as they often are in more modern movies, they show up well. Blacks are silky and deep, occasionally giving way to a bit of crush in darker scenes, but excellent overall gray scale variance lends the image marvelous presence and vibrancy. Of course some scenes appear slightly overexposed, others a shade soft, and still others a tad murky, but considering the film's age, such anomalies are expected, even after a restoration.
Close-ups are striking, patterns are rock solid, and the clarity of details such as grains of soil, gloppy mud, and the caked-on dirt that covers many a uniform is exceptional. One might think the seams of restoration might occasionally show, but no noise, pixelation, or edge enhancement color our view of this first-rate transfer, which only enhances the film's power and impact.
Video from the early 1930s is difficult enough to restore, but audio poses an even greater challenge, given the primitive recording techniques employed at the time. While Universal has done yeoman work tidying up the roughness of the 'All Quiet on the Western Front' soundtrack, there's only so much restorers could do with the existing audio. Hiss has certainly been reduced, but it's always evident, especially during more tranquil moments. Pops and crackles are much less prevalent, but during the noisy battle scenes they intermittently crop up. And, of course, there's an overall hollowness and lack of depth to the audio's tone that's a direct result of rudimentary microphones. Dialogue is generally clear, but occasionally actors wander a bit out of range, making some conversations uneven. Comprehension also can be a bit difficult if other audio elements compete with the dialogue for prominence.
Dynamic range is, understandably, limited on this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, although some weighty bass tones add appropriate emphasis to the combat sequences. Mild distortion occurs at either end of the scale, but effects are generally well defined. 'All Quiet on the Western Front' was certainly an ambitious undertaking from an early sound perspective, and considering the complexities involved, the finished product is surprisingly balanced, clear, and cohesive. Universal's rendering may not be perfect, but it remains true to the film and its era.
A fine supplemental package enhances this classy release. The digibook alone (described above) would be enough for me, but Universal has sweetened the pot with some other noteworthy extras. The lack of an audio commentary and a retrospective featurette are glaring omissions, but even without them, this package still outshines others in the classics genre.
One of the most stirring and powerful anti-war stories ever told, 'All Quiet on the Western Front' remains as relevant and affecting today as it surely was upon its initial release almost 82 years ago. As long as young men valiantly go off to war and give their lives for their country, this sober, thoughtful film will have meaning and merit. It's also one of the most staggering technical achievements of the early sound era, winning well-deserved Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Universal has rightly included the title in its 100th Anniversary Collector's Series and has treated it with the utmost respect. The Blu-ray features a superbly restored picture, cleaned-up audio, and a nice selection of supplements, all wrapped up in a substantial and beautifully designed digibook. Even today, this superior film might be too brutal for some viewers to take, but those who experience it will long remember its presentation and, more importantly, its message. Highly recommended.