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A sensitive German youth, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) is urged to volunteer for duty by a war-mongering professor who prattles on with patriotic chest-poundings. After enlisting with his schoolboy friends, Paul is primed for World War I action by a former mild-mannered postman who mutates into a brutal corporal and is soon hardened by the horrors of the battlefield. Paul comes under the protective wing of Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a wily veteran who helps sharpen the young soldier's survival instincts but on a brief return home Paul feels alienated from those he once loved. Back at the front he rejoins the few comrades who remain and he again faces the harsh realities of kill or be killed.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
More often than not it is billed as "the finest anti-war film ever made;" a regular in the Top 10s of seasoned critics and sometimes "the greatest of all time." Faithfully adapted from Erich Remarque's classic pacifist novel, All Quiet has not only stood the test of time but has exceeded it ... the benchmark for others and perhaps the only film of the sub-silent era to be as pertinent now as it was way back then. Originally begun as a silent, All Quiet, announced the arrival of sound with the screaming of bombs and mortar; the shrieks of the wounded and the defining of sentiments that audiences had never heard in their lives before. "When it comes to dying for your country," it is said, "it's better not to die at all!"

So much for deluded notions about honour and glory when here is an outcry against fanatical nationalism and militarism that continues to resonate in anti-war protests today. The story is told from a German point of view but this is one of the film's great strengths, presuming that one soldier's suffering is no more horrific than the next and no soldier's life more worthy than another's. Poland at once banned it for being pro-German (it was not shown in France until 1962!) and the Nazis not only condemned it as anti-German but released live rats in cinemas in which it was shown. Eventually they outlawed the film for its "demoralizing effect on youth," revoked Remarque's citizenship, burned his book and sent him into exile (in Hollywood, where he later married Paulette Goddard).

How appropriate that it is directed by a man named Milestone who introduced new advances in cinema; tracking the camera in muddy trenches, simulating a machine-gun swooping across lines of attacking troops and using giant cranes for panoramic sweeps over grey and desolate landscapes. Long before Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan, Milestone did not shirk from the realities of mutilation and massacre. There are famous scenes when the hero kills a French soldier and weeps for his dead "brother;" there is the sombre passing of one dead man's leather boots to the next and a poignant final shot that has inspired film-makers ever since and is still best left unspoiled.

But perhaps the most sobering moment is when Paul returns to his old school and tells the professor's new students that it is not "beautiful and sweet" to die for one's country. Milestone was duly rewarded with an Oscar; the film was named Best Picture and it had a profound effect on Ayres. He had served with distinction in the Medical Corps but became a conscientious objector in WWII when conscience was considered cowardly. A 1979 TV remake addressed some of the technical antiquities and adjusted the language. The fact remains however that 75 years ago, All Quiet On The Western Front said all that needed to be said about the waste of war...and was banned by nations that sorely needed to embrace it before they went to war.

Published April 14, 2005

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(US, 1930)

CAST: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray

DIRECTOR: Lewis Milestone

SCRIPT: Del Andrews, Maxwell Anderson

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes




DVD RELEASE: March, 2005

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