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 après-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.


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



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


  1. Congratulations on finishing your project!
    I'm glad i ended with a movie you apprecaite and not one that causes head scratching. I agree with you. I think it's outstanding. Of course, date in some ways, but that doesn't matter. I'm particularly fond of the "boots motive". I bet it's a strange feeling to have watchemd them all. Maybe there's another list out there worth going through?

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  3. This is a really excellent review. Agree with you that the acting's pretty forced but it holds up great in every other area.

    Congrats on your achievement, too! Glad we can look forward to more excellent reviews.

  4. Your review is very similar to my own of the movie, but great minds and all that... ;-) It is still a powerful movie after 84 years; there aren't many movies that old you could say that about. It is worth noting that it must still be one of the fastest book-to-war-movie adaptations ever - 14 months from the book was published in Germany to movie premiere in the US. It was also just 1½ years after the introduction of "talkies", and as you observe, the older style of acting (both silents and theater stage) seems to have carried over. The 1979 TV movie isn't bad, but feels a bit tame compared to the original. There's been talk of a remake for some five years now, but it seems like that movie is stuck in pre-production hell. Anyway, a great review of a great movie, and I look forward to read more reviews from you!

  5. really awesome i liked it very much keep going on
    Thank you for the absolutely wonderful job you did
    on this blog.Good Job Keep it up and thank you for all of your hard work

    Gopala Gopala Pawan Kalyan Movie Review Rating

  6. I've always admired this movie. Having read the book at age eleven I was astounded to realise that it didn't matter what nationality you were. Young men are continually conned by jingoistic elders into giving their lives uselessly. Remarqe's novel is harrowing to read based, as it is on his own experiences. The horrors of battle are described explicitly, whether it's raw recruits falling into gas-filled shellholes or killing a man and having to spend the night, ironically, getting to know him better. When the movie was shown on TV about 1964, I found that, within censorship limitations, it stuck pretty close to the book. The big battle scenes were tremendously powerful and unnerving with that horrible screaming shell sound effect. Then there's the pan representing the machine gun pov across hundreds of falling Frenchmen. This movie was technically well ahead of its time. The greatest pity is of course that its message was ignored

    1. Good stuff. Totally agree. I have read the book several times. The movie follows the book as well as could be expected. It is one of the best adaptations of a war novel.


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