Saturday, May 16, 2015

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1929-30)

We haven't done one of the very early Best Picture winners for awhile, so let's tackle one today.  All Quiet on the Western Front was the winner of the third top Oscar in its history, becoming in fact the second war-themed film to do so.  Whereas many of the earliest Best Picture winners don't necessarily still resonate in modern times, this film does.  There isn't a war film that's been made in the last 85 years that isn't influenced by this one.  Based on Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel of the same name, All Quiet was directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal Studios.  Part of what makes this movie so memorable is that it was released in the Pre-Code era, prior to the censorship guidelines often referred to as the Hays Production Code.  The characters are all German, and since this was set during World War I, we know from our history books that this was the losing side.  Milestone made the characters seem as American as possible so the audience can relate (for instance, they don't speak German, they speak English).  This worked, as you feel absolute sympathy and empathy for the characters.  The only people that didn't seem to enjoy the movie were...well, Germany's Nazi Party.  They would storm theaters and ultimately got the film banned in that country.

Let's take a look at All Quiet on the Western Front.

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The movie opens with an on-screen explanation of sorts.

"This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all 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..."

There's a parade in the streets outside a schoolhouse.  Inside the building, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) is giving a passionate speech about Germany needing the students to all enlist and aid the homeland in the ongoing war.  He puts it over as the most glorious thing these young men could do.  The students are all rallied and decide it's a good idea.  They start cheering and singing as Kantorek looks on with a maniacal smile.  Upon entering the army, they all excitedly choose their bunks and start dressing into uniform when their supervisor walks in.  He's Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray), and the young men all know him as their postman back home, so they start saying hello and acting all chummy.  However, Himmelstoss is now in uniform and barks for them all to line up and be quiet.  He puts the men into rigorous training, often having them drop face-first into the mud and marching them around.  It doesn't take long, but he does indeed turn them all into soldiers, although the fantastic expectations they all had when they enlisted have all but vanished.  They hate Himmelstoss.  One night, the Corporal is stumbling back to his barracks drunk, so the soldiers jump him, put a sack over his head and dump him facefirst into the mud.  Boys will be boys.


The new soldiers arrive at the combat zone by train.  There are soldiers everywhere, horses and wagons running around and at times, a pouring rain.  That may all be manageable, but the incoming enemy shells are making things even more chaotic.  One shell kills one of the new recruits before they even reach their post.  This freaks out Behn (Walter Browne Rogers), but Paul (Lew Ayres)--who is more or less the inspirational leader of all the students-turned-recruits--calms him down and they all march on.

The soldiers are assigned to a unit that already houses some older soldiers, who at first are not terribly accommodating.  They're just jaded though, as they've seen many young soldiers come and go already.  Paul and the older soldiers start to converse and tension eases.  Paul learns that Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), or "Kat" for short, has gone to locate something to eat since there's been no food here for a couple of days.  Kat returns with a slaughtered hog he has stolen from a supply wagon.   The young soldiers trade cigarettes for taking part in the dinner.

Kat becomes a mentor for Paul and the others, handing out advice and instructions.  He and Paul become especially close.  Collectively, they're all the 2nd Company, and their first assignment is to restring some barbed wire.  As they're doing so, the bombarding picks up.  Behn is blinded by flying shrapnel and hit with enemy gunfire.  The rest all go underground into the bunker to protect themselves as the bombardment continues.  They wind up underground for days, and it begins to drive a few soldiers to madness.  One, Kemmerick (Ben Alexander), runs outside but is hit by gunfire, then stretchered off to the medical area.  Finally, the bombardment stops so the soldiers run up into the trenches.  There are tons of gunfire and explosions abound, but in the end the 2nd Company does overtake the enemy trench.


The soldiers go to the kitchen area for rations.  The cook has beans, sausage and bread for 150, but only 80 soldiers survived the last week.  One soldier gets excited, exclaiming "What a feast!", but the cook refuses to offer the double portions to everyone since his orders are one serving per soldier.  Kat and the cook argue but ultimately a supervisor gives the OK for the double portions.  After gorging themselves, the men all sit around digesting dinner and discussing the causes of the war and of wars in general.  They speculate about whether countries offend each other and why.  Tjaden (Slim Summerville) speaks familiarly about himself and the Kaiser.  Kat jokes that instead of having a war, the leaders of Europe should be stripped to their underwear and forced to fight it out with clubs.

The boys visit Kemmerick, who's in bad shape.  His right leg has been amputated and Kemmerick is so delirious he didn't even realize it until his colleagues tell him so.  Mueller (Russell Gleason) admires the leather boots of Kemmerick's and admits he would love to have them.  After everyone leaves, Paul stays behind and asks a doctor to help Kemmerick, who seems to be getting worse by the minute.  The doctor tells Paul he's done all he can do for him.  Paul soothes Kemmerick and prays to God.  Kemmerick says for Paul to give Mueller his boots.  A short time later, Kemmerick is gone.  Mueller gets the boots and loves them, even saying the war doesn't seem so bad now.  We see a series of clips of him marching and fighting, wearing the boots.  He's smiling the whole time...until we see the boots and the legs within them collapse in a heap, another war casualty.

Corporal Himmelstoss arrives into the camp.  He starts barking orders again but the soldiers all just laugh and rebuff him.  Himmelstoss is told he'll be advancing in the combat zone with the rest of them tomorrow.  As it turns out, Himmelstoss is a coward, whimpering upon a minor hand injury and hiding in a hole.  Paul riles him up and Himmelstoss then runs out yelling to charge.  Unfortunately, he's shot dead along the way.  Paul gets banged up so he jumps into a hole to recuperate.  As he looks up above, he sees several French soldiers running and jumping over the hole.  One French soldiers turns around, sees Paul and jumps in.  They struggle and Paul wins out, knifing his foe.  Paul and the French soldier stay in the hole all night as the bombardment above continues.  The French soldier is dying, and his labored moans and breaths are driving Paul crazy.  Paul gives the man water and tells him he'll be OK, but eventually the Frenchman dies.  Paul takes out the French soldier's booklet, sees a photo of his wife and son, and breaks down crying.


The soldiers are all given a weekend off, and they revel in food and drink at the pub.  Paul and his friend Albert (William Bakewell) ogle a young girl on a poster, and we see them doing this via a neat camera trick (somewhat revolutionary for 1929-30) where we see the poster on the wall with the reflection of the two men in a mirror staring at it.  Later, four soldiers are bathing outside in the river that separates Germany from France.  A few French women walk by on the other side.  The soldiers all start whistling and calling for the women to join them.  The women spurn them, with one telling them to shove it up their ass.  (This is said in French, and without subtitles, so you either catch it or you don't.)  The men have food to offer, so the women decide they should swim over.  Another soldier yells for the men to not cross, so the men decide they'll sneak over in the dark of night.  There were four soldiers but only three women, so three of the soldiers enlist Kat to get the fourth, who is Tjaden, drunk so he can't partake as an odd wheel.

The next day, Paul and Albert are both seriously wounded in combat.  They convalesce in a room with another man who tells them about the "dying room".  People are brought into that room and they never come back.  The beds they laid in are immediately stripped of the sheets too when they're brought there.  Albert gets up but collapses.  (The staging of Albert getting out of his bed looks to not match with the rest of the scene, as his bed is against a different wall then earlier.)  Paul later is told by a nurse that he's being brought to get his bandages changed.  He discovers he's going to the "dying room" and starts protesting, saying he'll return.  Sure enough, he does later return and is yelling in celebration.  His cheering subsides, though, when he learns Albert has had his leg amputated.

Paul is given a furlough and visits his family at home.  His mom is glad to see him, but she wishes he would get a safer job.  She also thinks things are going well in the war, as the country is still full of "For the Motherland" cheerleading.  Paul is out with his father and his friends, and all of them have full belief that Paul is getting "nothing but the best" as far as food and lodging while he's on the front lines.  Paul is shocked by how uninformed everyone is about the actual status and situation of the war.   Everyone is convinced that a final push for Paris is soon to occur, and the men all argue about the best war strategy.  Paul leaves the table as they all argue.


Paul then visits his old schoolhouse.  He can hear from outside Professor Kantorek delivering the same rah-rah speech to the students that he'd heard years earlier.  Paul goes into the room and is stunned to see these students are even younger than he was when he heard this speech.  Kantorek tries to convince Paul to speak to and inspire his class, and back up everything he's saying.  Paul can't do that.  He just says they fight and try not to die.  Paul chastises Kantorek and the war, saying that dying for your country is stupid.  The students call Paul a coward, but Paul fires back with impassioned anger.  Disillusioned with how things are back in his home city, he returns early and is greeted by Tjaden.  New recruits have arrived and Tjaden remarks how they're not even old enough to carry cigarettes, they're just old enough to die.  Kat is out finding food so Paul goes to find him.  He does so and they happily reunite.  As they're walking, some strafing occurs around them.  Kat injures his leg so Paul carries him to the medical unit, continuing to talk to him as he does so.  A second strafe lands nearby and winds up killing Kat instantly with a neck injury, but Paul is unaware.  It's not until he brings Kat to the medical unit and the doctors, who are rather blas√© having seen so much death in the war, tell him there's nothing to work on Kat about since he's dead.  Paul leaves dejectedly, now having lost his closest buddy along with all his fellow students he came in with.

Paul is back on the front lines.  He sees a butterfly just beyond his trench.  As children, Paul and his sister often caught and collected butterflies, and the beauty of this butterfly is such a paradox to the destruction all around him, so Paul smiles and reaches out towards the butterfly.  He winds up too exposed and is shot and killed by an enemy sniper.  The film ends with a shot of the 2nd Company arriving at the front for the first time superimposed over an image of a cemetery teeming with white crosses.




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The original book's author, Remarque, was offered the lead role in the movie initially, but he turned it down.  Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was also considered.....The final scene with Paul's hand reaching for the butterfly is actually not Ayres's hand, but Milestone's.  The scene was a late add and Ayres wasn't available at the time of filming.....Comedienne Zasu Pitts was originally cast as Paul's mother, but audiences only knew her for comic acting so her scenes would often elicit giggles from moviegoers.  As a result, the scenes were reshot with actress Beryl Mercer in the role.  Pitts is still briefly seen in the film's original trailer.....At the time of its initial release, the film was 152 minutes long.  Later re-releases saw the film greatly cut down (101 minutes) and the final scene given a new musical score.  This did not please Milestone.  In the early part of this century, the Library of Congress undertook a full restoration of the film back to its original form, and improving the picture and sound quality.  However, original prints are no longer known to exist of the full 152 minutes so the "full" version that exists today is 133 minutes long.....The last surviving member of the cast and crew was Arthur Gardner, who played a minor role as one of Paul's classmates.  He remained very proud of the film and loved to speak about it to anyone who wanted to ask.  Arthur passed away just months ago at age 104.....The Blu-Ray currently on the market of this film contains an additional sweet bonus, a silent version of the film complete with orchestral score and interstitials.....This film made such an impression on Ayres that he became a staunch anti-war activist later in life.....The film utilized over 2,000 extras.....The French soldier is actor Raymond Griffith, who was a star in the silent era.  Talkies all but ended his career because as a child, he lost his voice due to illness.....A remake of the film was made for television in 1979, and was well-received.

The 3rd Annual Academy Awards took place on November 5, 1930.  Eligible films were released in the period of August 1, 1929, and July 31, 1930.  This film premiered in New York and Los Angeles in April of 1930 but wasn't fully released in theaters until late August.  Still, the film was eligible since it did hit theaters before the deadline.  All Quiet on the Western Front scored four nominations, which at the time was actually half of the categories that existed.  It lost out on Cinematography and Writing (Screenplay), but won for Director and Picture.  The top prize was won over The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee and The Love Parade.  That last one actually got 6 nominations on this night, but went home empty-handed.  In fairness, I have not seen any of the other films nominated here, but I will be shocked if any of the others are more impactful than this one.  All Quiet is an intense, incredible movie with awesome staging and a story that hits you like a brick.  The performances would be my one small critique, as many of the characters seem either wooden or over-the-top.  Still, that's a minor quibble.  This movie is often called one of the greatest war films and/or epic films in history.  I would be hard-pressed to disagree.


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