Tuesday, November 22, 2011

1929/30 - All Quiet on the Western Front

As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I get invitations to all sorts of special screenings during awards season, no doubt intended to influence my vote at the SAG Awards. Idealistic as I am, I remain staunchly subjective, despite being offered free popcorn and soft drinks. I mean, I'll take the free popcorn and soft drinks - and anything else you're willing to offer me, for that matter - but no amount of bribery will make me write your film's name down on my ballot ... except, perhaps, if you offered me a role in your next film. That might do it.

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard fascinating insight into the makings of three films vying for accolades this season. First, Albert Nobbs, a moving but rather contrived film. Its flaws are forgiven, however, due to impressive performances by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, both present for the Q & A. Next, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a complicated and moody spy thriller, made all the more complicated by a terrible viewing perspective in the front row. Some faces were seemingly distorted so drastically that it was difficult to distinguish actors from each other. Nonetheless, a front-row seat meant that, during the Q & A, I was closer to the cheekily relaxed Colin Firth and the surprisingly stuttering Gary Oldman. Finally, Hugo, a visually breathtaking 3D extravaganza that is part children's movie, part homage to early cinema. Clearly, the producers took out all the stops for this screening. It was held at the magnificent Ziegfeld in Manhattan, where guests were treated to free popcorn and drinks, followed by a Q & A attended by no less than five of the cast - Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield - plus the screenwriter, John Logan.

We now take a look at the Academy's pick for Best Picture of 1929/30...

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews
(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)
Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis, Jr., Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Paving the way for many anti-war films that followed, All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a bunch of German high school boys who enlist in the army at the outset of World War I after an impassioned and patriotic speech by their teacher. At basic training, the young men are naively itching to get to the action, but once on the front, they quickly discover that war is not in the least bit exciting. It is tedious and dirty and psychologically damaging. The men are often hungry and tired, continually questioning the purpose of their exhaustion.

From the opening caption, there is no question as to what message this picture conveys. There is a veritable onslaught of "war is bad" moments and the poignancy with which that message is presented is rather overt. Nonetheless, it is indeed poignant. It is difficult not to be moved by the plight of Paul (Ayres), who after stabbing an enemy soldier in a foxhole, is forced to watch him die over the next few hours.

For a film of its era, it is commendably realistic in its portrayal of warfare. The in-your-face style of its battle sequences surely makes it the Saving Private Ryan of its day. The realism is, however, almost shot to pieces by the simplistically written characters. All the new recruits are naively idealistic and barely distinguishable from each other. So much so that they often behave as one, ducking in unison at the sound of artillery shells and complaining of hunger in a simultaneous barrage. In fact, when a couple of characters eventually become recognisable as distinct personalities, their most distinguishing trait is that they are not dead.

Furthermore, the performances are largely over the top, even for 1930 standards. Ayres (pictured) is particularly exaggerated, though he redeems himself late in the film during a touching scene in the classroom. Louis Wolheim and Slim Summerville deliver the most memorable performances for my taste, possibly because the humour of their characters allows them to get away with more theatricality.

Despite my criticisms, All Quiet on the Western Front is a thoughtfully directed and provocative film with many significantly powerful moments. Its issues may simply be a sign of its times.


  1. I went to a screening of "J. Edgar," which was free, after I bought my ticket. I made sure that I couldn't be bribed by any offers of popcorn, by having my pockets stuffed with leftover Halloween candy. After the movie, we had the Q & A. I asked if they thought that the persistent use of flashbacks interrupted the narrative flow of the film. Their response was to please dispose of any trash into the receptacles on my way out.

    Hey Matt, I've just been made an assistant house manager at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts. I have to make sure I keep a smile on my face when dealing with the patrons. I think I should be eligible for a SAG card. What do you think?

    OK, enough grousing - on to "All Quiet on the Western Front." This was the only nominated film from 1929-30 that I had seen before, but re-watched it. It still remains quite an indictment of war and a definitive showcase for the disillusionment of combat. While it suffers from many of the early talkies struggles with naturalistic acting and scoring, it was ahead of its time with it use of camera and direction. Like many of the movies of that era, using actors not of the nationality portrayed was just an accepted practice. The poignant final shot still packs an emotional punch.

  2. Mike, I'll have a word to the SAG Membership Department and see what I can do :-)

    I have to agree with you on the clever use of camera. Some of those sweeping crane shots during the battle sequence occasionally made me forget I was watching a film made eight decades ago.

  3. This is the only nominated movie from this year that I have seen. The thing that impressed me was the sheer scale of the battle scenes, especially for a movie made so long ago. I agree that the scene where he talks to the classroom is moving, as well as "the butterfly scene."