Tuesday, December 30, 2014

BEST SOVIET WAR MOVIE: The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972)



                “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” is a Soviet film released in 1972.  It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  It is set in a village near Finland in 1942.  Sergeant Vaskov (Andrei Martynov) is in command of a unit that is noted for drunkenness and fraternizing with the village females.  His superior solves the problem by taking away his men and sending an anti-aircraft unit to replace them.  An all-female ack-ack unit!  The girls laugh at Vaskov’s insistence on following regulations.  The village becomes like a girls summer camp.  They sleep together in a barracks.  They sing songs.  They dance with each other.  They take a steam bath together (with nudity, guys!).  But when there is an air raid, they kick ass.  They efficiently use their KPV multi-barreled heavy machine gun and shoot down a bomber.  Rita (Irina Shevchuk) coldly stitches a parachutist.
Rita, Zhenya, Lisa, Galya, Sonia
                Lisa (Yelena Drapenko) spots two German paratroopers in the woods and Vaskov decides to take her and four others to track them down before they can do whatever sabotage they are tasked for.  They cross a swamp and set up a strong defensive position to ambush the pair.  Unfortunately, the pair turns out to be eight pairs.  Vaskov sends Lisa  back through the swamp for reinforcements. He and the remaining four will attempt to delay the Germans.  The movie now shifts to “who will survive?” mode.

womanning a KPV
                I went into this movie with very low expectations.  I had never heard of this movie as it had not been mentioned as a noteworthy Soviet film like “Come and See” and “Ballad of a Soldier”.  The opening scenes seemed to confirm this.  Vaskov is a buffoon and the girls are giggly.  I was wondering if it was a comedy and whether it was truly a war movie.  Not that the first part isn’t entertaining.  The ladies are fetching and some are hot.  How often do you get a nude frolic in a steam bath in a war movie?  (A Soviet war movie at that.)  Actually, only a war movie about the Red Army in WWII could realistically portray female soldiers like this movie.

steam bath time
  The air raid is a seriously good combat scene, but appeared to be an aberration in an otherwise fluffy movie.  Not that the movie was standard up to this point.  Early on a series of striking flashbacks kicks in.  The movie is crisply black and white, but the flashbacks are in color and slightly surreal.  They are used to give back-stories to the main characters.  For instance, Zhenya (Olga Ostroumova) had an affair with a married officer.  By the end of the film, the five women who go on the mission have had their characters developed well.  It is a heterogeneous group.  There is the slut (Zhenya), the revenge-minded widow (Rita), the mousy (Lisa), the poetry lover (Galya), and the timid (Sonia).  More important is the character evolution of Vaskov.  He goes from a buffoon to a crafty leader.  He also shows commendable empathy for his charges in a big brotherly way.  And he turns out to be quite a warrior, as do the girls.  They participate in fire-fights using their Mosin Nagant rifles and captured German MP40s.

Vaskov
Zhenya's flash back
Director Rostotsky served in the army in WWII and went on to become a decorated film-maker after the war.  The movie is technically proficient.  The decision to show the flashbacks in a different style added pizazz to the movie.  The cinematography in the forest scenes is remarkable.  The biggest accolade I can bestow is that you do not realize without reflection how difficult it must have been to smoothly film the running about in the forest.  There is some POV and even some hand-held.  The lensing contributes to the fog of war aspect of forest fighting.  Rostotsky’s themes are apparent.  Female soldiers could be feminine and yet serve the Motherland effectively.  The movie is an homage to them.  They deserved it.
“The Dawns Here Are Quiet” is a must-see for anyone interested in Soviet war movies.  It belongs in the discussion about which is the best of this subgenre.  Having seen several of the most lauded films, I can say it is easily in the top 5. It could even make my 100 Best War Movies list.
GRADE =  A
SOVIET WAR FILMS
 1.  The Dawns Here Are Quiet
 5.  Come and See

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE: 100th Anniversary

     There has been some coverage recently of the famous Christmas Truce during the first winter of WWI.  A British company even made a commercial based on it.
 
     Here is the historical background: On Christmas Eve on the Western Front spontaneous cease-fires broke out along parts of the front. They started in some cases with the Germans putting up Christmas trees and candles along their parapets and singing carols like "Silent Night". The British or French responded with their own songs and then the mood caused some brave souls to go into No Man's Land to fraternize. Gifts, food, and drinks were exchanged. In one case, a soccer (football) game was played between a Scottish unit and a German unit.  The commercial does a good job of portraying this.  It does not attempt to portray the story I tell my class about how the match was between a Scotish unit and a German unit.  The Scots won, partly because the wind would blow up their kilts and they were in the habit of not wearing underwear so it distracted the German footballers.  Believe that if you want.  I want to.
 
     There have been two movies that have focused on the event.  "Oh! What a Lovely War" has an extended scene about it.  Watch it here: 

  

 
      The movie "Joyeux Noel" is based on the incident.  It really enhances the tale, but in a very entertaining way.  Here is the "Silent Night" scene:
 
 

     Here is the entire movie.
 

 
MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

CHRISTMAS WAR MOVIE: Silent Night (2002)


 
 

                This year my Christmas selection is the movie “Silent Night”.  It was made for television (Hallmark) and released in 2002.  It was directed by Rodney Gibbons and stars Linda Hamilton.  It is based on a true story that is set in the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas time in 1944.  You can watch the entire movie on You Tube. 

                The movie begins with an elderly German named Fritz reminiscing with a young American about his grandfather who he had met in the war.  The movie then proceeds into flash back mode.  Fritz (Matthew Harbour) and his mother Elizabeth Vincken (Linda Hamilton) are refugees from the fighting in the Ardennes.  Elizabeth thinks their cabin in the woods will be a safe haven from the war.  They plan on a quiet, uneventful Christmas eve.  That is ruined when three American soldiers barge in.  One of them is wounded (Michael Elkin as Pvt. Ridgin).  Sgt. Blank (Alain Goulem) is very distrustful of Elizabeth (and any German for that matter), but Pvt. Rassi (Romano Orzari) bonds with Fritz.  Three is a party, six is a movie as three Germans arrive to complicate matters.  Rassi bluffs them into surrendering, but then the forceful Mrs. Vincken insists that the opposing sides agree to a truce and leave all the weapons outside.  The deal is reluctantly agreed to with Blank and Lt. Klosterman (Martin Neufeld) both wink-winking.  Klosterman is a hard-core Nazi who implies that Elizabeth will be held accountable for not warning them about the Americans.  He also wonders why Fritz is not in the Hitler Youth at the ripe old age of 12.  Sgt. Mueller (Mark Antony Krupa) helps with Ridgin’s wound. 

                A shared meal and conversations encourage empathy and camaraderie among the soldiers.  The sergeants make a connection over singing “Oh Christmas Tree” and Blank and Klosterman debate Nazism.  Next comes trimming the Christmas tree and the obligatory singing of “Silent Night”.  It all comes to a screeching halt when Klosterman notices Rassi has an Iron Cross souvenir.  Klosterman’s decorated brother was stripped when he was killed.  Not a good moment for Ridgin to enter with a pistol.  It's a "Midnight Clear" scenario.  The interlude comes to an end the next morning when an American MP arrives.  Or is he?

                “Silent Night” is a sweet little Christmas movie and should leave a warm spot even for Scrooges.  It is decidedly made for TV and if you are looking for action…  The acting starts out weak, but the actors seem to calm down and play it more naturally as the movie proceeds.  Hamilton is the only star and she anchors the film.  It would be interesting to know whether the real Elizabeth Vincken was critical of the Nazi regime.  In the movie, she openly questions the war and flat out tells Klosterman she will not allow her son to serve.  The other actors are no names who emote adequately.  The characters are stock (ex. the scrounger), but well-developed.  The dialogue is fine if a bit Hallmarkish.  At least it’s not mawkish.  The movie is not overtly religious, but it won’t turn you into an atheist.  There is certainly a strong theme of we are all humans after all.  The ending has a nice twist to it. 

                “Silent Night” is not in a league with “Joyeux Noel” or “A Midnight Clear”, but it is a nice choice if you want something that combines war and Christmas.  See the spoiler report below on how much of the story is true.

Grade  =  B-

HOW TRUE IS IT?  The basic scenario is true, but the details are enhanced for our viewing pleasure and so we won’t fall asleep.  The Vincken’s did take refuge in a cabin.  Three Americans did join them and one of them was wounded.  Unlike the movie, the Germans did not speak English.  Who wants to read subtitles in a made for TV movie?  The three Germans knocked before being invited in by Elizabeth.  She did require them to leave their weapons outside and they did agree to a truce.  One of the Germans did help with the wounded American.  The group shared a meal of stew.  The next day the two trios parted without incident.  Overall, acceptable artistic license for a movie that was not meant to be an important historical retelling.

For an alternative take, go to my friend’s blog:  All About War Movies  
 
THE FULL MOVIE
 
 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

LIVE: Tank Battalion (1958)


 
            “Tank Battalion” was released in 1958 and played on a double bill with “Hell Squad”.  Whatever happened to double bills?  Another reason life today sucks compared to in the 50s.  TB has the distinction of having three actors that later appeared in the original “Star Trek” series – Frank Gorshin, Leslie Parrish, and Barbara Luna.  It is a black and white movie.  It opens with piano music.  Is this a romance?  We are in Korea in 1951 and we are treated to real footage from the war.  The footage may be real, but the tank is decidedly not.  That is the most spacious and pristine tank interior I have ever seen.  Was anyone at the drive-in movie stupid enough to think that was what  the inside of a tank looked like?  Crew banter:  “You know, a guy could get killed in this war”.  Thus speaks the comic relief of Gorshin (playing “Skids”).  We see the war through the crew’s periscopes.  It’s more war footage.  The tank is alone and has to return for repairs.  The crew talks about dames.  Back at their base, Sarge’s girl (Alice – Leslie Parrish)  waits – she is hot!  Their commanding officer is an ass who has an eye for Alice.    Skids is putting the moves on a nurse named Norma (Regina Gleason).  “My temperature is rising rapidly”.  Egg Charlie’s is the local bar.  There is a bar girl named Nikko (Barbara Luna).  “Man, that babe is a human atom bomb.”  “Give me a shape like that and I would never drop it”.  What?  One of the crew (Danny) wants to make an honest woman out of Nikko.  There is a laughable fight in the barracks.  Gorshin does some impressions.  The three romantic duos go on a picnic!  They have to act this out because they could not find any picnic footage.  Instead of ants, they are bothered by commie infiltrators.  Danny wimps out and can’t kill a captive, but Sarge does not mind murdering the “monkey” in cold blood.  Some other monkeys are sneaking around the sound stage.  They stab a sentry because he is looking at a picture of his girl.  Idiot!  The girls are having a sleep over with their clothes on, dammit.  The commies sneak in and … steal some supplies.  Commies are gay.  Nikko stabs a lingerer.  Enough with this stage courtesy of Home Depot.  It’s time for Operation Spider.  Something about a joint operation to reach the 38th Parallel. It will change the course of the war, naturally.  More footage – some of it is repetitive.  Did they film anything on their own besides the interior of the tank?  They get lost so we don’t ever get to see the battalion of tanks.  It’s like they only had one tank to make the movie.  This movie obviously inspired “The Beast”!  A grenade damages a tie rod and they are crippled.  They are surrounded by commies, but worse they have to undergo taunting.  They draw straws for who will make a run for the mechanic.  Corbett (Edward G. Robinson, Jr. – you heard right) draws the short straw and refuses to go.  Danny mans up and Nikko will not be going to live in America.  Corbett realizes Nikko is now available and makes the run.  He runs like a guy with palsy.  This throws off the aim of the monkeys.  Why doesn’t the tank fire any shells at the commie machine gun?  Corbett returns with the mechanic, but he gets killed.  Corbett remembers that he can fix things and repairs the tank.  A commie with a flame thrower!  Cool.  The  tank drives off and they hurl a grenade that gets pay back on the bastards.  The end.  Did they run out of film?  Did Operation Spider succeed?   

         This movie is incredibly bad.  Possibly the worst war movie I have ever seen, not counting “Braveheart”.  It must have cost a couple of dollars to make.  The ladies are easy on the eyes, which is the only plus.  The plot makes little sense.  A conflict is developed between Sarge and Caswell and then dropped.  The dialogue is predictably lame.  The acting is horrible, but what do you expect from that cast.  It is fun to watch Gorshin, however.  And fun to imagine the reaction of Edward G. Robinson, Sr.  Junior slept with Marilyn Monroe so he didn’t care what anyone said about his acting.

Grade =  F-  
 
P.S.  Check out that poster.  They are fighting Yankees from the Civil War!            

Monday, December 15, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: So Proudly We Hail (1943)


 

                “So Proudly We Hail” was inspired by the nurses in the Philippines at the beginning of WWII.  Director Mark Sandrich read a story about ten nurses who escaped from Corregidor.  He and screenwriter Alan Scott ( who received an Academy Award nomination for his script) interviewed the ladies and even hired Eunice Hatchitt as technical adviser.  Hatchitt did a lot of eye-rolling over the petulant behavior of the three leading ladies in the film.  The movie was based on the book by Juanita Hipps (“I Served on Bataan”).  The “Angels of Bataan” served first on Bataan and then Corregidor before the lucky few were evacuated and the unlucky majority were imprisoned for the rest of the war.  The movie had the cooperation of the War Department, the Army Nurses Corps, and the American Red Cross.  The movie was a box office hit and was nominated for four Oscars (Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, and Visual Effects).
Colbert, Goddard, and Lake

                The film opens in May, 1942.  Eight nurses are in the Philippines.  Lt. Janet “Davy” Davidson (Claudette Colbert) has been wounded.  Suddenly they are on a cruise ship.  We’ve jumped to the end of the war and Davy has lost her will to live.  A doctor prescribes flash backs.  We are introduced to our trio of celebrity nurses as they sail to the Philippines.  Davy is the mother hen, Joan (Paulette Goddard) is the slutty one, and Olivia (Veronica Lake) is the vengeance –minded, Jap hating war widow.  Davy is romantically involved with Lt. Summers (George Reeves eight years before Superman) and gets to bathe him so the ladies in the audience might consider joining the nursing corps.  Meanwhile Joan is flirting with a hayseed named Kansas (Sonny Tufts).  Olivia is being unsociable, even with the other nurses.  What a bitch!  They don’t realize the Japs killed her husband.  At a Christmas party on board the ship, a Chaplain gives a speech to the audience telling them to have faith in the things America stands for. 

                When they reach Bataan, they are assigned to a hospital.  Olivia gets herself assigned to the Japanese prisoner ward.  Will she cold-bloodedly murder?  John shows up.  Unwounded. What the…?  John and Davy go on a moonlit walk and spend the night in a dugout – wink, wink.  The Japanese show up before the girls can bug out.  Olivia lets her peek-a-boo hair down and pulls a grenade out of her bra.  That is not a euphemism.


Put that hair down, put those hands up
                At the new hospital, John ( what is this guy? a hospital groupie?) gives Davy a monkey that of course is named Tojo (because they look alike).  The head nurse’s son dies after having his legs amputated.  She represents all the moms who have lost sons in the war.  The damned war keeps intruding on the romantic subplots.  “I don’t know if that’s an air raid warning or mess call.  Either way it’s a warning”.  LOL  Those bastard Japs even bomb the hospital with the huge red cross on it.  We wouldn’t do that.

                The gals are evacuated to Corregidor.  So is John, who has finally managed to get himself wounded.  A doctor removes his shrapnel (“it’s probably good American steel” – non-Greatest Generation, this is a reference to scrap iron sold to Japan before the war).  The hospital is located in the Malinta Tunnel.  There is a plug for Red Cross blood.  One nurse gets the “heebie jeebies”.  Davy and John honeymoon by a howitzer before he goes on a suicide mission to get quinine.  “I’ll be back”.  Liar.  Joan says goodbye to Kansas.  “So long, kid”.


Davy and John in the Honeymoon Suite
                “So Proudly We Hail” is better than you would expect.  It is fairly realistic in depicting the lives of nurses in the Philippines.  They were in fact very sexy and had romances with soldiers.  Actually, according to the movie, two thirds of nurses had affairs and one third were married to soldiers who were killed in the war.   And they were able to keep their hair perfectly coiffed.  The movie is entertaining in a 1940s war movie aimed at females sort of way.    There is some pretty good humor and some of it is even intentional.  The dialogue is better than average for this type.  It is only occasionally schmaltzy.  The speeches did not make me throw up in my mouth.  Surprisingly, the movie deserved its visual effects nomination.  The bombing scenes are well done.  There are some effective pyrotechnics.  The acting is good and no one embarrasses themselves.  The three ladies are fine (and I do mean fine).  Goddard got a Best Supporting Actress nod.  She plays 1940s trollop well.    Colbert is her usual solid self. Lake is not much of an actress, but I don’t think anyone cared.  Excuse me, is that a grenade in your bra?  Oh, and there are some men in the cast as I recall.  One of them played Superman.

                Classic or antique?  Classic because of the recognition for the nursing corps.  This is what sets it apart from other wartime war movies.  It could have been much worse.

 
Grade =  C+

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#1 - All Quiet on the Western Front


                It all began in the summer of 2010 after I saw the movie “Julie and Julia”.  That is a movie about a young woman who decides to blog about trying all of Julia Childs’ recipes.  I was looking for something to create a blog about and had recently gotten a copy of Military History magazine’s “100 Greatest War Movies” issue.  Add this to my lifelong love of war movies and the project took shape and I was off and running. The initial idea was to review the 100 on a weekly basis.  That quickly proved too ambitious for a full-time teacher and soccer coach, hence the plus four years to reach #1.  Amazingly, I have been able to view every one of the 100, although some were difficult to obtain.   I  decided early on that I wanted to branch out and do more than just the 100.  The blog expanded to include a variety of war movies.  Although finishing the project is very satisfying, it is not the end of my journey.  I now move on to compiling my own list of the 100 Best War Movies and continue the variety of reviews I have been doing.  There are still plenty of war movies, war miniseries, and war television series to be watched.  And the occasional war film that makes it to the theater.

BACK-STORY:  The first great anti-war film was based on the greatest anti-war novel ever written.  Lewis Milestone took on the task of bringing Erich Remarque’s book to the screen and even considered casting Remarque as Paul Baumer.  Lew Ayres won the role and was so affected by it that he became a pacifist and jeopardized his career by claiming conscientious objector status in WWII.  His brave service as a medic helped regain much good will from the public.  Milestone had learned filmmaking in the Signal Corps during WWI.  He knew what war looked like from editing war footage.  He recreated no man’s land on a ranch in California.  Shell holes were blasted with dynamite and then filled with muddy rain water.  A French village was built on a back lot and included a canal that was dug for the swimming scene.  Twenty tons of black powder and ten tons of dynamite were used for the battle scenes.  One explosion resulted in Milestone being hit by debris and knocked unconscious.  2,000 extras were found in California by requesting help from American Legion posts.  The US Army could not provide soldiers because American doughboys could not appear in foreign uniforms on film.  The 99 day shoot was double the planned 48.  The $.9 million budget boomed to $1.4 million.  It paid off as the movie was a smashing success and won the Best Picture Oscar.  Milestone won Best Director and the film was nominated for Writing and Cinematography.  It was ranked #54 on AFIs original list of the 100 greatest movies, but did not make the revised list issued in 2007!  (See below for the list of war movies that made the list.)  It was not a smashing success in Nazi Germany, a country Remarque had been forced to flee for his life.  At its premiere, Goebbels had the Brown Shirts release mice, stink bombs, and sneezing powder to clear the theater.  The movie was pulled after a week and not shown again in Germany until 1952 ( the year Remarque returned to his homeland ).

OPENING:  A title card:  “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession and least of all not an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.  It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…”  (This is the opening to the book and previews the fact that the movie follows the book closely.)  It seems to be an adventure as the opening scene has enthusiastic soldiers march through a German town to cheers from the populace.  In a high school classroom, Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) harangues his charges about their duty to the Fatherland.  They are “the iron men of Germany, the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy…”  The camera pans to the boys’ faces as each imagines what enlistment will mean.  One visualizes his heartbroken mother and his proud father.  Another sees himself riding in a parade sandwiched between two babes.  (Milestone cut several other imaginings including Paul working at home on his writing and being torn between it and the army.)  Peer pressure and the band wagon effect have the boys enlisting en masse.  Added bonus:  no more school!

I can't go die for our country,
but I really think you should
SUMMARY:  Exit class, enter training center.  The boys-now-men naively look forward to combat, but the arrival of their ex-postman Himmelstoss (John Wray) throws cold mud in their faces.  He gives the typical denigrating speech where he calls them stupid and tells them to forget everything they know.  “I’ll take the mother’s milk out of you.  I’ll make you hard-boiled.  I’ll make soldiers out of you or kill you.”  Having never seen a war movie drill sergeant (since they had not been invented until this movie), they consider Himmelstoss’ tough training methods to be outrageous.  (Milestone cut two scenes fleshing out Himmelstoss’ pettiness.  For example, Paul and Albert cleaning the floors with toothbrushes.)  Especially the trips to “the muddy field”.  Revenge involves a caning and a mud puddle.  They don’t bother to thank Himmelstoss for hardening them for the front.

                The muddy field does not prepare them for the chaos and death which awaits them the moment they exit the train.  They are thrust in with some veterans who sneer about newbies being “fresh from the turnip patch”.  Making his grand entrance with a purloined hog comes the first scrounger in war movie history.  Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) also doubles as the crusty non-com who actually runs the unit.  He questions why they left school.  They will too - shortly.  Kat shepherds them on their first taste which is a routine wiring detail in no man’s land at night.  The lorrie driver tells them:  “If there any of you left, I’ll pick you up in the morning.”  A close shell causes one of them to crap his pants – you don’t see that kind of realism in modern war movies.  The same soldier (Behn – the most reluctant of Kantorek’s boys) is the first to die.  He overemotes to death. 

                In a claustrophobic dugout scene, the crew undergoes a bombardment (and a rat assault) and several of the new guys exhibit shell shock.  Kimmerich (Ben Alexander) panics and ends up in the hospital.  He passes on and passes on his awesome boots.  They are so comfortable that the men dismiss the cursed nature of them as a running theme has them being passed from soldier to soldier.

                The big battle scene is one of the greatest in war movie history.  I show it in my classes to prepare them for their letter from the trenches of WWI.  A panning shot of the German trench is intercut with views of no man’s land.  A rolling barrage is followed by a wave of French poilu reaching the Germans in spite of the staccato rhythm and results of the Hun machine guns.  Emphasis on machine.  Milestone takes advantage of the pre-Victorian Production Code to show the iconic severed hands on the barbed wire visual.  This also explains the hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and entrenching tools.  Retreat, counterbarrage, counterattack, withdrawal.  Result =  lots of dead men + no territorial change.  WWI in a nut shell.
                One advantage of fifty percent casualties is the survivors get double rations of beans and sausages from a REMF cook.  War wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the death.  The apr├Ęs-dinner discussion of war is cynically pacifistic. 

                                How do they start a war?
                                One country offends another.
                How can one country offend another?  You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany that gets mad at a field in France?
                No.  One people offend another.
                Oh, I shouldn’t be here at all.  I don’t feel offended.

Kat concludes the discussion with his opinion that the Kaiser’s got everything he needs, but he never had a war.  Every leader needs to have a war and it benefits the manufacturers.  “It’s a kind of fever – no one wants it, but suddenly here it is.”  He makes the common sense suggestion that the leaders of the opposing sides meet in their underwear in a field with clubs.

                Guess what despised ex-drill master shows up at the front?  Himmelstoss’ by the book authority trip is jeered at by his former pupils.  “Take a run and jump at yourself”.  If this were Vietnam, he would be frag-bait.  In the next battle, Himmelstoss overcomes a bout of cowardice with rote obedience to command.  Paul survives a bombardment by taking refuge in a grave and then has his encounter with the Frenchman in the shell crater.  It seems all the soldiers are human beings in spite of having different colored uniforms.  Paul:  “You’re dead, but you’re better off than me.”

Lew Ayres and the only cast member
who does not chew the scenery
                An interlude with some madmoiselles (sex for bread and sausage) is followed by Albert (those cursed boots!) and Paul being wounded and sent to a hospital.  After surviving the “dying room”, Paul gets to visit the clueless home front.  He doesn’t fit in and is repulsed by the armchair generaling by his father and his blathering friends.  (Milestone cut a scene where Paul is berated by an officer for not properly saluting.)  A visit to Kantorek finds him recruiting more “iron men of Germany”.  Paul’s impromptu guest speaker stint ends with hisses from the future fodder as he tells it like it is.  “We live in the trenches. We fight. Sometimes we get killed.  That’s all.”  (Milestone cut Paul’s awkward visit with Kimmerich’s mother where he lies and tells her he died painlessly.)  

Paul gives his sausage to a
French girl
CLOSING:  Paul returns to his real home to find that only Tjaden and Kat are still around. He goes to find Kat on a failed scrounging expedition.  An incredibly accurate sniper plane picks out the pair and drops a bomb that wounds Kat in the shin.  Paul is carrying Kat to the aid station when the bastard drops another bomb that kills Kat.  Paul does not know this until the medic tells him his friend is “stone dead”.  Later, as the war approaches its end, Paul notices a butterfly (he collected butterflies as a kid) and upon reaching for it, he is killed by a French sniper (who is the vengeance minded brother of the guy he stabbed in the shell crater.  Oops, spoiler alert- that is the plot twist in the upcoming new Hollywood version of the movie).  By the way, Milestone came up with the ending (the book is vague as to what happens to Paul) after principal filming ended so he used his own arm for the scene.

Never reach for a butterfly in warfare
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  If they are war movie fans, certainly.  It is a classic and set the template for all future war movies.  It is well balanced and covers more than just soldier stuff.  It even has five female speaking roles!  Although three are French and not subtitled.  You can figure out what the girls are saying, however.  The combat is not graphic or bloody.  The language is tame as is to be expected for a film from that time period.  If your significant other is not a war movie fan, they still might enjoy it.  In fact, I would imagine women might tolerate the overemoting more than most guys.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Obviously “All Quiet” is not a true story.  However, Remarque was a German infantryman during the Great War and all of the incidents in the film are realistic and most were probably based on incidents in Remarque’s experiences.  The film has a great deal of verisimilitude. 

                The opening public enthusiasm is appropriate for people who had not had a dose of Hell since the Franco-Prussian War thirty years earlier.  The way young men were manipulated by the authorities to go to war is a major theme.  (It is important to note that if the script had been reversed and the boys were Americans, the movie never would have been made.)  The training scenes are realistic, if softened.  The Himmelstoss of the book is harsher and closer to the Prussian style. The dynamic between the new replacements and the hardened veterans is appropriate and could be from any war and any country (and any war movie).

                You can learn a lot about soldier life in WWI from this movie.  The movie is especially strong in its depiction of soldier camaraderie.  The bonds are forged in the furnace of the trenches.  The film throws in numerous details of the hardships the soldiers endured.  It hits many of the “lacks”:  food, female companionship,  sleep, hygiene   

"Be patient.  Someday you'll get Kimmerich's boots."
                The wiring detail is a nice touch and reenacts a common WWI duty that is seldom depicted.  The dugout bombardment scene is well done and gets the claustrophobia and stress right.  The movie only implies that this situation could last for up to a week and it is not surprising that some of the new soldiers cracked.  As far as the rat assault, this is an effective cameo from a creature that was a major nuisance in the trenches.  Speaking of critters, there is an appearance by the ubiquitous lice.

                One could carp a bit about the rather too pristine hospital scene with the amputee Kimmerich, but the reality of wound mortality is accurate.  The combat set pieces are the highlights of the film.  Although understandably truncated, you can not ask for a more accurate depiction of the insanity of trench warfare.  Where “Paths of Glory” showed the suicidal nature of many attacks, “All Quiet” concentrates on the attack/counterattack nature of the tactics.  The audience is left to wonder what was the purpose of attacks that did not change the situation and yet resulted in terrible casualties. 

                Just as important is how Paul’s return home reflects the detachment of the populace from the realities of the war.  Paul is your typical soldier who finds his home to be a surrealistic reflection of a bygone life that he has trouble remembering ever existed.  It seems he is more comfortable in the dugout with his new family.   The mattress in Paul’s bedroom is too soft.  The butterfly collection seems childish.  The old men, representing the powers that shipped the “iron youth” off to war, are clueless about the actual status of the war.  Just like in every war before and since.

CRITIQUE:  “All Quiet” is a technical marvel and Milestone belongs on the Mount Rushmore of war movie directors just for this movie alone.  (He also made “A Walk in the Sun” and “Pork Chop Hill”.)  It is the kind of film where you notice the cinematographic flourishes in a positive way. Milestone has a penchant for framing scenes through doorways and windows.  This tends to detach the audience or the main characters from the exterior events.  This is apparent from the opening scene where we see the parade through a doorway and then we transition to Kantorek’s class as the parade passes by.  Milestone then has the fired-up boys marching out to join the war.  The battle scenes include a variety of shots.  There is a magnificent panning shot over the trench intercut with views of no man’s land.  We even get some POV which was rare for films from that era.  The interplay of the machine gun mowing down the wave of French does a chilling job of depicting modern mechanized warfare.  The most memorable sight is of the French soldiers leaping into the trench.  The most commendable aspect of the combat scenes is the sound effects.  For a movie in the transitional stage from silent to sound, it is amazing how they got the sound of the explosions so indelibly real.  The sets also bear lauding.  No man’s land looks appropriately hellish.  The village built for the movie is perfect.  The dugout shows a real attention to mise en scene.  The enormous $1.4 million budget was well spent.  By the way, none of the budget was spent of a soundtrack as Milestone felt it would trivialize the plot.  The lack of the usual sappy, prod-your-emotions score of most black and white movies is a big plus.

                The main flaw in the movie and the main reason why I had disappointing results from showing it to students is the elements that reflect the carryover from the silent era.  This is mainly reflected in the acting which tends to be hammy.  Some of the actors’ facial contortions and scenery chewing are distracting.  This is particularly apparent in highly charged scenes like the one where Paul is stuck in the shell crater with the Frenchman he stabbed.  Speaking of which, Lew Ayres is a weak link in the cast.  He is not up to the role and is either too passive or is too histrionic.  Most of the rest of the cast also behave as though they were told they were making a silent movie.  Only a few seem comfortable with the new “talkie” style of restrained acting.  Wolheim (Kat) and Summerville (Tjaden) take the acting honors.  Interestingly, playing veterans, they seem more comfortable in soldier’s boots.  The dialogue is not part of the acting problem.  It is actually not bad and has an appropriate dose of cynicism and soldier humor.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that much of the dialogue comes from the book and Remarque knew how soldiers talked.

                The acting keeps the film from being great entertainment.  On the other hand, the themes make it an important war movie.  The movie is a good retelling of the most significant war novel ever written.  You do not have to read Remarque’s novel to get his messages.  The movie does that for the audience.  Remarque clearly intended to write an anti-war testament and the movie passes this on admirably.  It has been said that all war movies are anti-war.  I disagree with this, but “All Quiet” has got to be one of the most unambiguous examples of this theory.  The movie is much deeper than “war sucks”.  It also posits that the soldier age generation was betrayed by the establishment (teachers, fathers, generals).  A third theme is that the soldiers were the same no matter the side.  This was hammered at in the shell crater scene.  The scene with the French women expands this theme.   A corollary to this is the soldier discussions that emphasize that soldiers don’t have a clue about what war is all about and why they are fighting.  The cynicism and disillusionment that effect soldiers because of the incompetence and pomposity of leadership are effectively depicted.

CONCLUSION:  If you have followed this blog, the revelation that “All Quiet” finished #1 has probably not come as a surprise.  Military History magazine did not go out on a limb with this choice.  It’s not like naming Jennifer Aniston the sexiest woman ever.  And the choice confirms my often stated theory that the panel read “greatest” as meaning “most important”.  If that is true, then there was no other choice for #1.  “All Quiet” is the king of war movies.  In many ways it created the genre as we know it, although it is not the first war movie.  You could argue it was the first anti-war movie.  Hollywood took a while to evolve to clearly anti-war movies.  Before U.S. entered the war, most war films advocated neutrality.  Then they supported preparedness (The Battle Cry of Peace).  Once we entered, the movies favored intervention.  In the Twenties, Hollywood depicted the war as an adventure (What Price Glory?, Wings, The Big Parade).  By the end of the decade, books like “All Quiet” steered the industry toward cynicism and thus it is the granddaddy of movies like “Platoon”.  More important, the movie established many of the tropes that define war movies.  The comradeship and bonding of soldiers at the front.  The detachment from the home front.  The clueless leaders.  The crusty veterans.  The officer who lets power go to his head.  The friends who go to war together and evolve into experienced soldiers until they die.  Specifically, it created the subgenre of “who will survive?”  It’s a testament to the greatness of the book/movie that the deaths are not predictable and are so memorable.

RATINGS:

Acting  =  C
Action  =  7/10
Accuracy  =  A
Plot  =  A
Realism  =  B
Cliches  =  A+ for creating them

GRADE  =  A

WAR MOVIES ON THE AFI LIST:

86 – Platoon
81 – Spartacus
71 – Saving Private Ryan
65 -  The African Queen
60 – Duck Soup
54 -  MASH
53 – The Deer Hunter
39 – Dr. Strangelove
37 -  The Best Years of Our Lives
36 – Bridge Over the River Kwai
30 -  Apocalypse Now
18 – The General
8 – Schindler’s List
7 – Lawrence of Arabia
the original trailer