Based on Arthur Wesley Wheen’s English translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s WWI novel, Im Westen nichts Neues, director Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a heart-rending anti-war melodrama told from the perspective of a young German soldier. Internationally, the novel was an overnight publishing sensation in 1929, prompting Universal’s Carle Lemmle Jr. to secure the rights to produce the film. In re-conceptualizing the book for the screen writers Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott remain relatively faithful to the novel’s origins with one minor exception.
While the book is told entirely from Paul Baumer’s narrator’s perspective, the film adopts a third person POV with Baumer (Lew Ayres) as its central protagonist. Baumer is an idealist, an innocent thrust into the middle of a world spinning out of control. He recognizes the damaging and lasting effects that war has on the human psyche. His body is pressed into service, but his heart and mind refuse to surrender his soul to the cause. Reportedly, the studio was unimpressed with director Milestone’s choice of Lew Ayres as his star. The actor had only appeared in two films prior to this one. But neither had made Ayres a saleable commodity in Hollywood. Worse, he lacked the traditional matinee idol good looks the studio demanded from their stars. Undaunted, Milestone pressed on and Ayres was reluctantly cast. It was the right decision.
For Carl Lemmle Jr. had overlooked the obvious. First, it was essential that the public become wrapped up in the story rather than the star playing the lead. Second, the cold harsh and often unsympathetic narrative of self-destruction required an actor who could emote to the horrors of war with empathy and a mere glance. Ayres proved he could draw an audience in with his understated, yet utterly poignant performance. The film opens with the conscription of young men into the military. Baumer and his classmates are stirred into an almost religious fervor for bloody conquest by their teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). The popular perception is that nothing could be finer than to fight and die for God and country. As cadets, Baumer and his classmates are ruthlessly drilled by Lieutenant Bertinck (Pat Collins) who delights in demoralizing trainees in order to transform them from a sloppy group of fresh-faced adolescence into uniformly detached killers.
Baumer and his fellow soldiers are shipped off to the combat zone where they encounter their first grim and unflattering taste of carnage. After a day of fighting, the new recruits mingle with the established regiment and barter cigarettes for food rations. Baumer is assigned the task of stringing barbed wire along the front. But a foxfire ensues and several soldiers meet with untimely ends. The fundamental point constantly hammered home in the Anderson/Abbott screenplay is that war is hell; its casualties not confined to those brave many that die on the battlefield but also those who survive to relive the horror in subsequent fighting and later, inside the darkest recesses of their own minds through reoccurring nightmares.
A scene inside the makeshift army hospital best exemplifies Baumer’s increasing resentment toward the conflict. He and several other soldiers including Mueller (Russell Gleason) sneak into the ward to console their friend, Franz Kemmerich (Ben Alexander) who has been injured in battle. Kemmerich is unaware that his leg has been amputated until Mueller lets it slip out during casual conversation. Kemmerich becomes agitated and asks everyone to leave. The room empties, but Baumer returns and Kemmerich dies his arms. His boots are passed on to Mueller who, in turn is killed the following day in battle – the boots passed to another solider for more bloodshed and tragedy. Baumer’s emotional tenacity is relentlessly put to the test – witnessing unspeakable slaughter while being forced to partake in atrocities for his ‘fatherland.’ The screenplay questions the ‘success’ and 'glamour' of war – particularly in the scene where Baumer observes his own firepower mowing down a brigade of French soldiers. The dichotomy in that moment is poignantly captured.
From a tactical perspective, the slaughter is perceived as a victory. But from a personal perspective it is a betrayal of the sanctity of Baumer's own creed. Returning home briefly, Baumer is sullen. His mood continues to sour in the face of blind patriotism of his family and friends who have stayed behind and deem him a hero. Their glorification of the war without any real understanding of its severity sickens Baumer. The final moments of the film are truly heart-breaking. Distracted by the purity of a white butterfly darting about the battlefield, the one true emblem of the freedom Baumer craves for mankind, Baumer reaches for it as his own last ditch effort to reconnect with the ‘goodness’ of life. It is a fatal mistake. Baumer is shot in the head by a French sniper, becoming just another casualty, his sacrifice achieving no immortalization in the annals of history.
A colossal success on its initial release – winning the Best Picture Oscar – All Quiet on the Western Front was re-cut as pro-war propaganda during WWII. Not surprising, the film was banned by Adolph Hitler in Germany and did not resurface on the European continent until the late 1960s. By then it was missing several key sequences. The Library of Congress undertook a spectacular search for the missing elements and conducted a restoration and preservation in the mid-1990s. Today, All Quiet on the Western Front is regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. The impact of its message remains as resilient as ever; that in man’s fervent struggle for self-preservation against an enemy he frequently destroys himself.
Universal’s Blu-ray resurrects All Quiet on The Western Front as never before. The B&W elements have been given a superior restoration for Universal's 100th Anniversary and the results are very impressive to say the least. Scenes that were pale and poorly contrasted on Universal's previously released DVD have been brought back with a startling clarity in 1080p. While the studio has employed DNR to minimize the severity of the film grain, there's still quite enough of it present to give this transfer a very film like quality. Contrast levels are vastly improved over the aforementioned DVD release. Fine detail sparkles. Truly, this transfer is far beyond what I ever expected this film could ever look like on home video. It's a revelation that made me want to see this movie again - twice!
The audio has also been restored for this presentation. If anything, it has dated for more than the picture elements. There's a slight, but notable hiss. Again, Universal has done all they could to resurrect the original sound elements. They should be given top marks. Given the film’s importance and prestige, it’s a minor tragedy that the Blu-ray doesn't get updated in the extras department. No audio commentary or documentary on the film. We get Universal's junket on their anniversary celebration and the same Robert Osborne intro that came with the DVD. Otherwise, this is a bare bones offering from Universal. I should also add that the Blu-ray packaging is rather impressive. We also get a very nice booklet presentation with some interesting factoid style information and an informative introduction. But as I stated on Universal's reissue of To Kill A Mockingbird - more was expected of the studio with extra materials - especially for a 100th anniversary! But for the sheer impressiveness of this remastered image, All Quiet on the Western Front gets high marks and is highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)