Death Is Not an Adventure: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

On February 4th, the last living veteran of WW1 passed away in King’s Lynn, England. Florence Green was 110 years old, and had joined up with the Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918, two months before the armistice. The last surviving combat veteran, Briton Claude Choles, died in Australia in 2011. The Great War is no longer part of the world’s living memory, and so drifts slowly from history and into myth (see: War Horse). This process will accelerate in 2014-2018, the 100th Anniversary of the conflict. But no images, not even Spielberg’s, have defined the war more than those in All Quiet On the Western Front, Universal’s grim gamble of 1930. Banned in Poland, reviled in Germany, and a tough sell to  studios, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel is one of the bleakest films ever made in Hollywood. Universal is releasing it on Blu-Ray today in a pristine restoration, in a nearly-complete 133 minute version, while also including the rare silent edition, which was made for theaters not yet equipped for sound (For background on all the edits inflicted on the film, please read Lou Lumenick’s article in the NY Post).

In 1929 Universal’s president and co-founder Carl Laemmle appointed his son, Carl Jr., as production head, a gift for his 21st birthday. Already notorious for his nepotism (Ogden Nash quipped, “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle), it was considered a bit mad for him to invest $1.25 million in the adaptation of Remarque’s novel, only to have his inexperienced son produce it. Not only was the book brutally violent and corrosively anti-war, it also necessitated having main characters who were German, not a popular country at the time. According to Andrew Kelly’s Filming All Quiet on the Western Front, “industry commenters dubbed the film ‘Junior’s End’”, punning on the title of another WWI film (directed by James Whale), Journey’s End (1930).

Journalists were denied their Schadenfreude when Laemmle, Jr. organized a wildly talented team for the production unit. According to Kelly, Paul Fejos (who directed the sublime Lonesome (1928)) claimed to have initiated the purchase of the book rights, and wanted to make the film. He was then dropped, sadly, for Herbert Brenon, who had recently completed the East-Indies adventure The Rescue (1929), starring Ronald Colman. Universal balked at his asking price ($125,000, according to Patrick McGilligan in his George Cukor biography), and instead gave the job to Lewis Milestone, who had just won the only Oscar ever for Best Director, Comedy Picture (a category that should return!) on Two Arabian Knights (1929), a WWI POW laffer with Boris Karloff in a supporting role. Ironically, Milestone would end up pocketing $135,000 after the film went over-schedule and over-budget.

Maxwell Anderson was tapped to adapt the script, since he had written the play that was the basis for Raoul Walsh’s hit war front comedy What Price Glory? (1926). His treatment was then given a couple of polishes by Milestone’s friend Del Andrews and stage director George Abbott. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a frequent collaborator of Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad (1924), who would go on to shoot Walsh’s 70mm stunner The Big Trail after All Quiet wrapped, an astonishing duo to shoot back-to-back. Maybe the greatest coup in staffing was the addition of George Cukor as dialogue coach. His agent Myron Selznick recommended him to the Laemmles, and they were allowed to borrow him from Paramount for the shoot, aiding the callow 20-year-old Lew Ayres in playing the biggest role of his life (Ayres was so affected by the film that he later became a vocal pacifist, which torpedoed his career during WWII). Universal originally wanted Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. for the part, but United Artists was slow in arranging a loan-out, and they could never line up the schedule.

As in the book, the film follows Paul Baumer (Ayres) and his classmates as they join the Army out of high school, burning with ideological fervor for land and country, only to end up in the killing fields of the Western Front, where they are slaughtered like cattle. The film hews close the book’s plot details, but simplifies its structure. Remarque’s novel begins in combat and interpolates flashbacks of Baumer’s naïve youth,while Milestone’s film smooths out the narrative, making the story a linear march from boyhood to soldier-dom. This robs these early scenes of some of their bitterness in the book, where Baumer recounts his youthful fervor while enduring a mortar bombardment in a muck-filled trench.

While Remarque presented these childhood scenes in a mode of seething regret, Milestone and Edeson frame them in images of barely suppressed hysteria, their shockingly mobile camera (nothing is locked down in this early sound film) craning back from the confetti-strewn streets of the military parade into the classroom, from pumped-up grandeur to jittery boredom in the length of one shot. Once inside, the images become more fractured. As their schoolmaster urges them to enlist in the army, Milestone opts for increasingly close singles of the teacher and his students, their eyes popping wide and the flop sweat of patriotism beading on their foreheads. The editing is as fevered as their teacher’s jingoism, cutting faster and faster until it lands on his face in extreme close-up, strained into a rictus of exultation.

In these exultant close-ups they are still individuals, but for the rest of the film Milestone will break them down into inhuman lines. Lines that, when erased, will be immediately replaced by other lines, as if in the manic hand of a sadistic animator. In Baumer’s first mission, he is tasked with his company of running a line of barbed wire along No-Man’s land. The camera follows along in horizontal tracking shot, the men dissolving into a group. This will continue in the actual battle, when the camera angles down into the trenches and pushes forward with relentless speed, as men are mowed down on both sides as if on an assembly line. The static shots are brief punctuations of these winding sentences, an image of detached hands gripping the wire, or a body falling lumpen to the ground. These sequences are the basis for Spielberg’s justly celebrated D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, of battles moving too fast for the men to process. The difference is that Milestone uses the trench as his guiding visual cue, sliced arteries that pump blood onto the sodden landscape, while Spielberg’s is the combat photographer, in which the center is always moving, with nowhere to retreat.

The cast does a fine job of embodying the gruff survivalist types and scared-shitless kids of Remarque’s novel, the baby faces with shell-shocked stares. Ayres is a receding presence, quiet, reflective and rather defiantly uncharismatic. It is a haunting performance of a masked piece of flesh going through the motions. The bulldog-faced Louis Wolheim is the most identifiably human soldier, his character old enough to have developed a personality before war froze all of their lives in place. He is the hulking softie, a devastating brawler with a mother-hen feeling for his troops. These individual idiosyncrasies rise to the surface and wash away in the flood of violence, until they walk as one man into their muddy, worthless Valhalla.


0 Response Death Is Not an Adventure: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Posted By Heidi : February 14, 2012 1:18 pm

This movie is shook me to my core when I saw it for the first time. Well, and every time after, too. Just seeing the images makes me shiver. I didn’t know there was a silent version, that will be an interesting addition. I will be looking for the Blu-Ray; it needs to join my collection.

Posted By Heidi : February 14, 2012 1:18 pm

This movie is shook me to my core when I saw it for the first time. Well, and every time after, too. Just seeing the images makes me shiver. I didn’t know there was a silent version, that will be an interesting addition. I will be looking for the Blu-Ray; it needs to join my collection.

Posted By JeffH : February 14, 2012 4:07 pm

One of the few Best Picture winners that actually seems to have improved with the years and probably even more relevant today. With very few exceptions, you would not think of this film being an early talkie-fascinating what a year difference there is between something like THE COCOANUTS which is totally stagebound and this film, which moves the camera in ways that make films made later in the decade seem static. A wonderful film that still has the power to shock and make you cry at the end.

Is it possible that Universal has released this on Blu-Ray in the proper aspect ratio of 1.2:1 or is it in the Academy standard?

Posted By JeffH : February 14, 2012 4:07 pm

One of the few Best Picture winners that actually seems to have improved with the years and probably even more relevant today. With very few exceptions, you would not think of this film being an early talkie-fascinating what a year difference there is between something like THE COCOANUTS which is totally stagebound and this film, which moves the camera in ways that make films made later in the decade seem static. A wonderful film that still has the power to shock and make you cry at the end.

Is it possible that Universal has released this on Blu-Ray in the proper aspect ratio of 1.2:1 or is it in the Academy standard?

Posted By Emgee : February 14, 2012 4:38 pm

JeffH: 1:37 flat Academy according to DVD Savant.

One of the most moving pictures i ever saw, and still one of the few true anti-war movies, and not the more prevalent “yeah, war is hell, but kinda exciting too” type.

Now for a dvd release of Journey’s End!

Posted By Emgee : February 14, 2012 4:38 pm

JeffH: 1:37 flat Academy according to DVD Savant.

One of the most moving pictures i ever saw, and still one of the few true anti-war movies, and not the more prevalent “yeah, war is hell, but kinda exciting too” type.

Now for a dvd release of Journey’s End!

Posted By JeffH : February 14, 2012 4:49 pm

Not sure who controls the rights to JOURNEY’S END at this time…It was a Tiffany/Stahl production but might have been released by UA. I have seen the film in a slightly dupey print but I hope that there is good source material for a home video release in the future.

Posted By JeffH : February 14, 2012 4:49 pm

Not sure who controls the rights to JOURNEY’S END at this time…It was a Tiffany/Stahl production but might have been released by UA. I have seen the film in a slightly dupey print but I hope that there is good source material for a home video release in the future.

Posted By tdraicer : February 14, 2012 8:54 pm

A great film, but I do note that an anti-war attitude was not exactly controversial in the wake of WWI; it was in fact so widely held in Britain, France, and the US that it caused them to stand aside as Hitler built his war machine. A fact that then caused later generations of Americans to jump into conflicts that could have been avoided for fear of repeating appeasement. History is nothing if not tragically ironic.

Posted By tdraicer : February 14, 2012 8:54 pm

A great film, but I do note that an anti-war attitude was not exactly controversial in the wake of WWI; it was in fact so widely held in Britain, France, and the US that it caused them to stand aside as Hitler built his war machine. A fact that then caused later generations of Americans to jump into conflicts that could have been avoided for fear of repeating appeasement. History is nothing if not tragically ironic.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : February 14, 2012 10:49 pm

Beautiful post on a landmark film – thanks so much.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : February 14, 2012 10:49 pm

Beautiful post on a landmark film – thanks so much.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 15, 2012 6:32 pm

Jeff, Emgee is right, the transfer is Academy ratio. There always seems to be wiggle room in AR arguments, but the framing looked fine to me on the disc. What is your argument for having the film in 1.20:1? I am ignorant about this part of its history.

Has anybody seen James Whale’s adaptation of Remarque’s follow up novel, The Road Back? The film was made in 1937, and according to Lumenick suffered major cuts due to the request of German officials. I would love to track down a copy of it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 15, 2012 6:32 pm

Jeff, Emgee is right, the transfer is Academy ratio. There always seems to be wiggle room in AR arguments, but the framing looked fine to me on the disc. What is your argument for having the film in 1.20:1? I am ignorant about this part of its history.

Has anybody seen James Whale’s adaptation of Remarque’s follow up novel, The Road Back? The film was made in 1937, and according to Lumenick suffered major cuts due to the request of German officials. I would love to track down a copy of it.

Posted By JeffH : February 15, 2012 8:47 pm

Until the Academy standard was established in 1931, many sound films with the sound on the print usually were in an aspect ratio close to square in order to fit the soundtrack next to the image. 1.2 or 1.21:1 was the norm in theaters that showed sound-on-film usually had to use that aperture in order to not have the soundtrack show. The DVD release of SUNRISE had the film in 1.2:1 with the supplement of the foreign release version in the 1.37:1 ratio because the print was mute and the soundtrack not there.

A lot of early talkies had both SOF and disc soundtracks, depending on what theater had which system. I noticed that the older DVD of ALL QUIET had the opening credits approximately 1.2 with the rest of the film in the Academy standard. I am just hoping that we are not losing some image on the top or bottom on the sound version in this set-I do know the silent version is 1.37, having seen that version on TCM and noticing that the image was a bit rectangular.

Posted By JeffH : February 15, 2012 8:47 pm

Until the Academy standard was established in 1931, many sound films with the sound on the print usually were in an aspect ratio close to square in order to fit the soundtrack next to the image. 1.2 or 1.21:1 was the norm in theaters that showed sound-on-film usually had to use that aperture in order to not have the soundtrack show. The DVD release of SUNRISE had the film in 1.2:1 with the supplement of the foreign release version in the 1.37:1 ratio because the print was mute and the soundtrack not there.

A lot of early talkies had both SOF and disc soundtracks, depending on what theater had which system. I noticed that the older DVD of ALL QUIET had the opening credits approximately 1.2 with the rest of the film in the Academy standard. I am just hoping that we are not losing some image on the top or bottom on the sound version in this set-I do know the silent version is 1.37, having seen that version on TCM and noticing that the image was a bit rectangular.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 17, 2012 12:57 am

A truly remarkable film and thanks for the announcement of it coming out on blue ray. Lew Ayres, I recall from a film segment on the Dr. Kildare movies, due to his portraying doctors so often, and being a pacifist, did serve in WWII, but as a medic. He trained other medics, and was sent to the South Pacific and worked at hospitals caring for the injured and dying.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 17, 2012 12:57 am

A truly remarkable film and thanks for the announcement of it coming out on blue ray. Lew Ayres, I recall from a film segment on the Dr. Kildare movies, due to his portraying doctors so often, and being a pacifist, did serve in WWII, but as a medic. He trained other medics, and was sent to the South Pacific and worked at hospitals caring for the injured and dying.

Posted By enjoythemonologue : February 17, 2012 4:07 am

As Emgee said, this film is one of the few that challenges the saying that there cannot be a true anti-war film, because the action sequences are inherently exciting. I think, like Remarque’s novel, the film is content with just stewing in the presence of war, not necessarily making a pointed statement, but allowing the audience to witness for themselves the horrors of war. Thank the Gods of Home Theater that we’re getting a great restored Blu-ray.

Posted By enjoythemonologue : February 17, 2012 4:07 am

As Emgee said, this film is one of the few that challenges the saying that there cannot be a true anti-war film, because the action sequences are inherently exciting. I think, like Remarque’s novel, the film is content with just stewing in the presence of war, not necessarily making a pointed statement, but allowing the audience to witness for themselves the horrors of war. Thank the Gods of Home Theater that we’re getting a great restored Blu-ray.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2012 10:25 am

I will never forget the first time I saw those severed hands hanging from the barbed wire. I couldn’t believe that was in a movie from 1930. It was a little shocking.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2012 10:25 am

I will never forget the first time I saw those severed hands hanging from the barbed wire. I couldn’t believe that was in a movie from 1930. It was a little shocking.

Posted By JeffH : February 20, 2012 3:04 pm

Those hands are still shocking even today, and believe it or not, that shot is in the trailer, as well! You can tell this film is pre-Code due to that shot and the scene with the French girls.

Posted By JeffH : February 20, 2012 3:04 pm

Those hands are still shocking even today, and believe it or not, that shot is in the trailer, as well! You can tell this film is pre-Code due to that shot and the scene with the French girls.

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