Friday, May 20, 2016

Wooden Crosses (5) vs. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) (12)


PLOT:  “Wooden Crosses” (“Les Croix de Bois”) is a French film set on the Western Front. The main character (Demachy) joins a heterogeneous small unit.  The men go through various trials including a night patrol and two major bouts of combat.  In between they try to maintain their humanity.  They have difficulty maintaining their existence as the unit is whittled away.    GRADE – B

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is the made-for-TV remake that stars Richard Thomas as Paul Baumer.  The plot follows the original and the book closely.  The movie uses a flashback format to look back at training camp.  Although there is some combat, the movie is primarily the tale of a group of friends and their comradeship on the Western Front.  The tale of the squad interlocks with Paul’s evolution from naivete to seasoned to cynical.  In some ways the plot improves upon the original.  Plus it is based on the greatest WWI novel.  GRADE -  A+

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  10    Wooden Crosses  -  8

ACTING:  Although “Wooden Crosses” came out in 1932, the acting is not the typical scene-chewing left over from the silent movie era.  In fact, the acting is remarkably good.  The cast is full of notable French actors from the 1920s and 1930s.  Pierre Blanchar as Demachy and Gabriel Gabrio as Sulphart are the stand-outs, but all of their comrades are comfortably played.  GRADE  -  A

“All Quiet…” has a decent cast with the big three of Thomas, Ernest Borgnine as Kat, and ian Holm as Himmelstoss.  Thomas is surprisingly good and a big improvement over Lew Ayres.  If you have read the book, he embodies Paul Baumer.  Borgnine and Holm are also perfect for their roles.  The rest of the cast of soldiers, while little known, do a good job portraying characters from the book.  GRADE  -  A

HALFTIME SCORE:  All Quiet  -  19  Wooden Crosses  -  17

COMBAT:  “Wooden Crosses” has about 22 minutes of combat.  The night patrol is in a realistic no man’s land with nice lighting from flares.  Later, an attack on a village starts with a bombardment that makes you wonder how anyone would go over the top.  The attack is similar to “Paths of Glory”.  There are great sound effects with explosions and machine gun fire. This is a noisy movie. There are lots of grenades.  The scene goes on for an amazing twelve minutes.  The deaths are random as the French drop like flies.  GRADE  -  A

“All Quiet…” opens with the Germans defending their trench against a French attack.  Paul and his mates fire their bolt-action rifles at the advancing enemy.  The Germans then counterattack and are themselves repulsed. You know, a typical WWI skirmish.  This scene, although well done, is the only sustained combat in the film.  It does have some bombardment,  poison gas, and even a flamethrower, but these are basically to set up character centric scenes like Paul in the shell crater with the dying Frenchman.  It appears the budget did not allow for recreation of some of the big battle scenes from the original.  GRADE  -  C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Wooden Crosses  -  26    All Quiet  -  26

ANTI-WAR:  “Wooden Crosses” is surprisingly not bitterly anti-war.  There is some cynicism, but the soldiers do not question the war.  Although it is about a French unit that undergoes terrible hardships in battle, there is no hint of the mutiny that is on the horizon.  There is a very high mortality rate, but the futility of the war is not laid on thick.  The movie is not interested in questioning the generalship.  GRADE  -  B-
“All Quiet…” is based on the most famous anti-war novel of all time and it is competent in rendering the book to the screen.  It has a similar mortality rate to “Wooden Crosses”, but the deaths have more of an impact due to better character development.  It also closes with one of the iconic deaths in war movie history.  Himmelstoss represents the inflexibility of command and Paul’s trip to the home front reveals the cluelessness of the civilian world.  Paul’s time in a hospital incorporates the horrors experienced by the wounded.  GRADE  -  A+

FINAL SCORE:  All Quiet  -  36  Wooden Crosses  -  34

MATCH ANALYSIS:  This was an exhilarating contest between two relatively unknown films. I had never seen “Wooden Crosses” before the tournament (the only one of the competitors that I had never seen) and have to thank whoever suggested it because I was very impressed with it.  It is one of the top ten movie about WWI.  It is a great movie, but it ran into a movie that I feel is unjustly disrespected.  “All Quiet…” (1979) took the greatest war novel and brought it into the modern age.  As a history teacher, I can guarantee you it is much better received by high school students than the original.  In this match, it came down to the winner translating the books plot and anti-war vibe effectively.  “Wooden Crosses” put up a great fight with the quantity and quality of its combat, but was let down by its luke-warm indictment of the war.   

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