Although perhaps the pro-war film is better known than the anti-war variety, both are pretty old genres. One of the best (and earliest) anti-war films made, 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, is now available on Blu-ray for all to see.
Directed by Lewis Milestone and based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of a group of German soldiers during World War I. Lew Ayres stars in the film as Paul, your typical everyday lad who, along with his friends, is convinced by a teacher that it is great and glorious to go off and support your country as you fight an oppressor. Quickly, however, Paul and his friends realize that there is nothing great and glorious about war no matter whose side you’re fighting on and what you’re fighting for.
Despite the fact that the film runs more than two hours, Paul comes to his realization during boot camp, which is relatively early on in the goings. The rest of the film then features the constant drubbing into Paul of just how horrible war can be, and just how wrong one’s leaders might be, and how foolish and naïve those on the home front might be. The film’s basic argument is that during a war all that matters is scraping your way through and doing your best to make sure your friends do as well.
Paul is helped on this last mission by Katciznsky (Louis Wolheim), an experienced soldier who knows how to actually get food and which bombs one has to be worried about. Although he has a hard exterior, Katciznsky and his friends are the first people that the new recruits meet (in the army or out) who tell them the truth about the nature of war.
While some character development exists in the film, much of it takes a backseat to showing the viewer over and over and over again the horrors of war. Perhaps the most memorable of these scenes is when Paul becomes trapped with an enemy soldier in a ditch. More than any other moment in the film, it is this one which brings home the idea that no matter what uniform one is wearing we are all the same on the inside.
The greatest triumph of All Quiet on the Western Front is its ability to be so terribly anti-war in general without getting bogged down in simply being against the Germans in World War I. It would be all too easy to have put out a semi-anti-war film which also came down hard against Germany (something along the lines of “war is hell, especially if you’re on the wrong side”). Milestone and company are able to all but forget about nationality and focus wholly on this being the experience of soldiers the world over.
Universal has done an absolutely brilliant job restoring this film. Yes, there are bits of dirt and some scratches here and there, but they are minimal. The amount of detail and the clarity of the picture is truly outstanding. The film retains its grain, has great black levels, and looks nowhere near its age in this new release. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has a noticeable, low, hiss throughout, but it really is quite minimal in comparison to the way most films this old sound. All the dialogue is clear, all the sound effects are clear, and the music comes through cleanly as well. It may sound somewhat tinny, but that’s a factor of how the sound was recorded, not how the film has been restored. The presentation truly is a triumph.
What is weird about this release are the extra features or lack thereof. The Blu-ray comes with a DVD, booklet, and a digital copy, all of which indicates a certain amount of effort and care (as does the film’s restoration); however, Universal has opted to not give the film a menu, which undercuts that entirely. They have again included here their piece on restoring old movies (which was also on To Kill a Mockingbird, and one imagines will be a staple of this 100 year anniversary set of releases). There is also a trailer, a purely promotional piece on Universal’s Academy Award winners, an introduction by Robert Osborne, and the silent film version of the movie. These last two are by far the most interesting, and one certainly wishes that Osborne was given an extended piece here to discuss the movie rather than just a brief glossing over of the film and Lew Ayres.
All Quiet on the Western Front may not feature any whiz-bang special effects nor spurts of blood, but it still manages to be gripping and dramatic in it presentation of the horrors of war. The new release may have some odd quirks to it, but it is a movie that is well worth seeing.