All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 American epic war film based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. It was directed by Lewis Milestone, and stars Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.
All Quiet on the Western Front is considered a realistic and harrowing account of warfare in World War I, and was named #54 on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies. However, it fell out of the top 100 in the AFI's 2007 revision. In June 2008, after polling over 1,500 workers in the creative community, AFI announced its 10 Top 10â"the ten best films in each of ten "classic" American film genres; All Quiet on the Western Front was ranked the seventh-best film in the epic genre. In 1990, the film was selected and preserved by the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The film was the first to win the Academy Awards for both Outstanding Production and Best Director.
Its sequel is The Road Back, which shows members of the 2nd Company returning home after the war.
The film opens in a boys' secondary school in Germany at the beginning of World War I. The instructor, Kantorek, gives an impassioned speech about the glory of serving in the Army and "saving the Fatherland". On the brink of becoming men, the group of boys is moved to join the army. The young enlistees are shown in basic training, aching for "action" fighting in the war. Their training officer, Himmelstoss â" a strict disciplinarian who is hated by all the recruits â" tells them to forget everything they know; they are going to become soldiers. Rigorous training diminishes the recruits' enthusiasm some, but after little more than marching drills, suddenly the boys are told they are "going, up front".
The new soldiers arrive by train at the combat zone, which is mayhem, with soldiers everywhere, incoming shells, horse-drawn wagons racing about, and prolonged rain. One in the group is killed before the new recruits can reach their post, to the alarm of one of the new soldiers (Behm). The new soldiers are assigned to a unit composed of older soldiers, who are not exactly accommodating. The young soldiers find that there is no food available at the moment. They have not eaten since breakfast â" but the men they have joined have not had food for two days. One of them (Katczinsky) had gone to locate something to eat and he returns with a slaughtered hog. The young soldiers "pay" for their dinner with cigarettes.
"For the Fatherland" the young soldiers' unit is sent out on night duty and they move into position packed into a flat cargo truck. As the driver drops them off at their destination, he tells them, "If there's any of you left, there will be someone here to pick you up in the morning." The young recruits watch the truck intensely as it leaves. Katczinsky gives the "schoolboys" some real world instructions, telling them how to deal with incoming shells, "When you see me flop, you flop. Only try to beat me to it." The unit strings up barbed-wire and tries to avoid shells. Flares light up the night sky as the enemy tries to spot them, machine guns hammer and a bombardment begins. Behm is killed by machine gun fire; most of the soldiers keep low in the trenches. Franz Kemmerich runs out to retrieve Behn, but, upon returning to the trench, realizes that he's carrying a corpse. He is scolded by Katczinsky for risking his life. When the truck arrives in the morning most of the unit has survived.
Back at the bunker in the trenches, the soldiers play cards and fight off the rats who eat their food and gear. The young soldiers are showing signs of great stress: nightmares, shaking uncontrollably, and screaming about the unrelenting bombs. One recruit (Kemmerich) loses control, runs out of the trench and is injured. Some of the soldiers want to leave the trench and attack, but the enemy seems to have superior firepower. When food finally comes, the men have to fight to get their share. Then they are overcome by rats and the soldiers kill the rats with spades. Suddenly there is a break in the bombing and the men are ordered out to fight.
A loud rumbling can be heard as the enemy approaches. The soldiers are in trenches with their rifles ready as incoming shells move closer and closer. They can do nothing but wait. The enemy French soldiers come into view, running toward the trenches, but the Germans hold their fire until the enemy is closer. Paul witnesses several soldiers die from shellfire. The Germans use machine gun fire, hand grenades and rifles to mow down the enemy. The enemy suffers great losses, but succeeds in entering the trenches, where hand-to-hand combat with bayonets begins. The Germans retreat to a second line, from where they launch a counterattack. At great cost they enter the French front line, but are unable to hold their position, and are ordered to withdraw to their original positions.
The men of Second Company return from the battle and line up for a meal. The cook refuses to feed them because he wants the entire company to arrive. The men explain that this is all that is left of the company â" 80 of the original 150 â" and the cook refuses to give them all the food he has prepared. An argument follows and violence seems imminent when Lieutenant Bertinck arrives and orders the cook to give all the food to the men.
The men start out eating greedily, but then settle into a satiated torpor. They hear that they are to return to the front the next day and begin a semi-serious discussion about the causes of the war and of wars in general. They speculate about whether geographical entities offend each other and whether these disagreements involve them. Tjaden speaks familiarly about himself and the Kaiser. They speculate about whether it is the Kaiser or the manufacturers that need the war or whether it is the result of a fever. Katczinsky suggests roping off a field and stripping the kings and their ministers down to their underwear and letting them fight it out with clubs. It is finally decided that they should go see their friend Kemmerich, who was wounded in the battle and is in a dressing station, and bring him his things.
Five of the men find Kemmerich in a very bad condition, complaining that his watch was stolen while he was under ether, and that he is in pain in his right foot. Not realizing that Kemmerich did not know, MÃ¼ller lets slip that his right leg has been amputated; Kemmerich becomes upset. Kemmerich expresses regret that he would never become a forester and Paul tries to reassure him. MÃ¼ller sees Kemmerich's boots under the bed and tactlessly asks him for them. Kemmerich asks Paul to give his boots to MÃ¼ller and then loses consciousness. Paul tries to summon a doctor, but the doctor and the medic can do nothing. As Kemmerich finally succumbs to his wounds, Paul leaves the dressing station with Kemmerich's boots and breaks into a run. MÃ¼ller is trying to talk about math to Katczinsky when Paul brings him the boots. MÃ¼ller is pleased and says that he will not mind returning to the front in such fine boots. Paul describes how he reacted to Kemmerich's death by running and how it made him feel more alive and then hungry.
In a sequence of battle scenes, MÃ¼ller is wounded and his boots are passed on to another soldier, who is also wounded and presumed killed. One day Corporal Himmelstoss arrives to the front and is immediately spurned because of his bad reputation. In an attack on a cemetery, Paul stabs a French soldier, but finds himself trapped in a hole with the dying man in for an entire night. Throughout the night, he desperately tries to help him, bringing him water, but fails miserably to stop him from dying. He cries bitterly and begs the dead body to speak so he can be forgiven. Later, he returns to the German lines.
Then the company have a day off the front line, and soon everyone gets drunk and eats as much as they can. While washing in the river, the men catch the attention of French women who invite them in their house at night.
Going back to the front line, Paul is severely wounded and taken to a Catholic hospital, along with his good friend Albert Kropp. Kropp's leg is amputated, but he does not find out until some time afterwards. Around this time, Paul is taken to the bandaging ward, from which, according to its reputation, nobody has ever returned alive; but he later returns to the normal rooms triumphantly, only to find Kropp in agony.
Earning a furlough, Paul then takes a brief trip back to his home, where he finds his mother is ailing. The people in his town are mindlessly patriotic and ignorant about what is happening at the front. He visits Kantorek, only to find him lecturing another class about the "glory of war." Disgusted, he returns to the front, where only a few men of the Second Company have survived, including an old hand, Tjaden. Paul asks Tjaden about Katczinsky, thinking that he is dead, but Tjaden reveals that Katczinsky is still alive. Paul goes looking for Kat, finds him scrounging for food, to no avail. Kat is wounded in the ankle by a bomb dropped from an airplane. So Paul decides to carry Kat to the field hospital. En route, though, the same plane drops another bomb, and the shrapnel from this explosion kills Kat, while Paul, in ignorance, continues to carry him to the field hospital. Paul is grief-stricken.
In the final scene, Paul is back on the front lines. He sees a butterfly just beyond his trench. Paul reaches out towards the butterfly, but becoming too exposed, he is shot and killed by an enemy sniper.
In the film, Paul is shot while trying to grab a butterfly. This scene is different from the book, and was inspired by an early scene showing a butterfly collection in Paul's home. The scene was shot during the editing phase, so the actors were no longer available and Milestone had to use his own hand as Paul's.
Noted comedienne Zasu Pitts was originally cast as Paul's mother and completed the film but preview audiences, used to seeing her in comic roles, laughed when she appeared onscreen so Milestone re-shot her scenes with Beryl Mercer before the film was released. The preview audience remains the only one who saw Pitts in the role, although she does appear for about 30 seconds in the film's original preview trailer.
The film was shot with two cameras side by side, with one negative edited as a sound film and the other edited as an "International Sound Version" for distribution in non-English speaking areas.
A great number of German Army veterans were living in Los Angeles at the time of filming and were recruited as bit players and technical advisers. Around 2,000 extras were utilized during production. Among them was future director Fred Zinnemann, who was fired for impudence.
First version of the film, a 152 minute silent version with synchronised sound, was first shown in Los Angeles on April 21, 1930 and premiered in New York on April 25, 1930. A sound version was released in NYC on April 29, 1930. A 147 minute version was submitted to the British censors, which was cut to 145 minutes before the film premiered in London June 14, 1930. The film went on general release in the US on August 24, 1930. In 1939, it was re-released as a proper sound version, which was cut down to ten reels.
Later re-releases were substantially cut and the film's ending scored with new music against the wishes of director Lewis Milestone. Before his death in 1980, Milestone requested that Universal fully restore the film with the removal of the end music cue. Two decades later, Milestone's wishes were finally granted when the United States Library of Congress undertook an exhaustive restoration of the film, which is vastly superior in sound and picture quality to most other extant prints, but because all existing complete prints of the film were lost and no longer exist, the final "complete" version now available is only 133 minutes long.
The film received tremendous praise in the United States, but controversy would attend the film's subject matter elsewhere, including Europe.
On its release, Variety wrote:
The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.
Some of the credit for the film's success has been ascribed to the direction of Lewis Milestone:
Without diluting or denying any... criticisms, it should be said that from World War I to Korea, Milestone could put the viewer into the middle of a battlefield, and make the hellish confusion of it seem all too real to the viewer. Steven Spielberg noted as much when he credited Milestone's work as partial inspiration for Saving Private Ryan ...Lewis Milestone made significant contributions to [the genre of] the war film.
Due to its anti-war and perceived anti-German messages, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party banned the film from Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. During its brief run in German cinemas in the early 1930s, the Nazis led by Joseph Goebbels disrupted the viewings by setting off stink bombs and releasing white mice in the theaters.
Subsequent to these Nazi riots, according to Harvard scholar Ben Urwand in his study, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler (October 2013), producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. agreed to significant cuts in the movie to make it more palatable for the large film audience in Germany.
Also, between the period of 1930 to 1941, this was one of many films to be banned in Australia by the Chief Censor Creswell O'Reilly. The film was also banned in Italy and Austria in 1931, with the prohibition officially raised only in the 1980s, and in France up to 1963. The film was finally re-released in Germany on April 25, 1952, in the Capitol Theatre in West Berlin.
The "International Sound Version", restored by the Library of Congress, premiered on Turner Classic Movies on September 28, 2011. This is an international version with intertitles and synchronized music and effects track. A new restoration of the sound version was also done in 2011. Both have now been released on Blu-ray format.
Awards and honors
1929â"30 Academy Awards
It was the first talkie war film to win Oscars.
- 1930 Photoplay Medal of Honor - Carl Laemmle Jr.
- 1931 Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Language Film - Sound to Lewis Milestone
- 1990 National Film Registry
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - #54
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
- "And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death." - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 - #7 Epic film
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1979 film)
- List of World War I films
- All Quiet on the Western Front at the American Film Institute Catalog
- All Quiet on the Western Front at the Internet Movie Database
- All Quiet on the Western Front at the TCM Movie Database
- All Quiet on the Western Front at AllMovie
- All Quiet on the Western Front at Rotten Tomatoes
- Two speeches from the film in text, audio, video from AmericanRhetoric.com