War Film "All Quiet on the Western Front" Premieres In Los Angeles

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War Film "All Quiet on the Western Front" Premieres In Los Angeles

Today in Military (Film) History: April 21, 1930

Some of my loyal readers may know that, in addition to my fascination with military history, I am also a fan of motion pictures. This is especially true with regard to pictures released before, oh shall we say, 1960 or thereabouts. However, combine old films with military history and, in my humble opinion, you have an unbeatable combination.

Since the invention of moving pictures, there have been many films devoted to war and battles. In fact, the first Academy Award for Best Picture (at that time, the category was actually "Most Outstanding Production") was given to the movie "Wings," whose theme involved the First World War. Eighteen months later, the 3rd Academy Awards presentation (held in November of 1930) honored another war movie as the Best Picture.

One of the best-selling novels of 1929 was "All Quiet on the Western Front," written by German author Erich Maria Remarque, himself a veteran of "The Great War. The novel's original German title, "Im Westen nichts Neues," literally translates as "Nothing new in the West." The first English translation in 1930 changed the title to its current, best-known form.

The book follows a group of small-town German youths who enlist in the army to fight in France. It describes the German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. The main character is Paul Bäumer, who becomes the voice of the young soldiers. They endure brutal training, are soon afterwards shipped to the front, and experience privation, constant shelling, and occasional battles that gain little ground. One by one, Paul's friends and comrades die until he is the only one left. In the book's last chapter, Paul comments that peace is coming soon, but he does not see the future as bright and shining with hope. Paul feels that he has no aims left in life and that their generation will be different and misunderstood.

German 1st edition

The novel became an international best-seller, and soon Hollywood decided to put it on film. Producer Carl Laemmle acquired the rights, and assigned writer Maxwell Anderson to develop a screenplay, with later revisions by George Abbott, Del Andrews and C. Gardner Sullivan. The film was under the auspices of Universal Studios. The studio eventually invested $1.4 million in the production, quite a sum considering that the U.S. stock market had just crashed.

It was shot in and around Orange County, CA. The director, Louis Milestone, put out a public call for any German Army veterans in the Los Angeles area, looking for persons to authenticate uniforms, equipment and procedures. So many German immigrants answered the call that some were cast as German officers. Some of the veterans were even used to drill the actors in their roles as German soldiers. In one scene, the young actors are laying communication wire under the supervision of a former German Army soldier whose job was to do exactly that.

The film was made in both a sound and a silent version, as a sop to many American theaters that did not yet have the talkie technology, still a recent innovation. Director Milestone purposely had the movie made without any musical soundtrack, seeking not to have the music distract from the seriousness of the subject matter. Unfortunately, many movie houses across the country were not used to a music-deficient film; therefore, the theater managers played whatever music they thought proper.

In addition, many of the scenes are very bloody and realistic; one shows an artillery bombardment which blows up one French soldier, leaving his arms hanging on the barbed wire. Due to the subject matter of war, Universal Studios felt it necessary to keep such scenes in the movie. (It is said that because of the realistic depiction of the wartime violence actor Lou Ayres, in the photograph below on the right, who portrayed Paul, became a conscientious objector during World War II.)

There is also one scene with a certain amount of humor that stands out to me. The company of German soldiers returns from the front to find a field kitchen ready to serve them their first hot food in many days. The head cook, however, refuses to serve the depleted unit, saying he has food for 150 men, and there are only 80 present. One of the men says, "Well, you're not here to feed 150 men; you're here to feed the 2nd Company. Well, we're the 2nd Company, so feed us." Finally, an officer arrives and orders the men served. As expected, the men gorge themselves and for a long time sit around, happily sated. They then begin discussing the war and why it started and how to end it.

The film is very faithful to the novel upon which it is based, with one major exception. The final scene of the movie shows Paul, the last surviving member of the high-school comrades, sits in the trenches, waiting for the war to end. He sees a butterfly, just outside the trench and beyond his reach. Paul stands up, and the camera focuses on his hand reaching for the pretty insect. Suddenly, an enemy sniper spots him and fires, killing him. In actuality, this scene was added in post-production. As all the actors had been released, when the cameras were rolling to film this final act, director Louis Milestone supplied the hand reaching for the butterfly. [In fact, this scene gives us an interesting continuity error – when Bäumer is reaching for the fatal butterfly, he is reaching with his left hand. When he is shot an instant later, it is on a close-up of his outstretched right hand.]

At the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony held November 5, 1930 "All Quiet on the Western Front" was nominated for 4 Oscars. It won in two categories – Best Picture and Best Director – to become the first film to win simultaneously in both categories.

Producer Carl Laemmle with the Best Picture Oscar

Footnote #1: Lew Ayres' pacifist leanings earned him much approbation in the 1940's and beyond. Ayres was cast in the pilot of the original "Battlestar Galactica" TV series in 1978, as an appeasing council elder. He is still in disbelief as the Cylons destroy the human civilization.

Footnote #2: The film was re-issued in 1939, and included a musical soundtrack, without the say-so of Louis Milestone. He appealed to Universal Studios to have the original version restored, which did not occur until 1990, when "All Quiet on the Western Front" was selected to be included in the Library of Congress' National Film registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Footnote #3: A TV remake was released in 1979, starring Richard Thomas – John-Boy of "The Waltons" – as Paul. This TV film won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy. There are also reports that a Hollywood remake is in the works, with a possible release date in 2013.

1979 remake DVD cover

Footnote #4: As of this date, there is one known cast member from the film who is still alive: Arthur Gardner, who had a small role as one of the students, will turn 101 years old this June. He was nearly fired from the production for playing practical jokes.

Footnote #5: In 1998 the American Film Institute announced its list of 100 greatest films for its "100 Years...100 Films" listing. "All Quiet on the Western Front" was selected 54th on that list. Ten year later, another listing from AFI enumerated the Top 10 films in 10 film categories. In the "Epic" film category, AQOTWF was selected as 7th. 

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.