Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"World War I: A group of German schoolboys soon learn that war has absolutely nothing to do with either glory or heroics"

More than eight decades after its release, Lewis Milestone's unflinching film version of Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front remains the greatest war movie ever made. Or rather, the greatest anti-war movie ever made. In its simple, straightforward manner, All Quiet on the Western Front manages to be infinitely more powerful than all other loftier (and widely acclaimed) war dramas I've seen, including Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (which borrows several elements from All Quiet), Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, not to mention mediocrities such as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, William A. Wellman's Battleground, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

From All Quiet on the Western Front's first sequences, when the German schoolboys are all eager to take up arms to fight for Fatherland, Honor, and Glory, to the very last scenes showing a soon-to-go-lifeless hand stretching out to reach for a butterfly, and young, ghostly male faces marching to their death, director Milestone and the film's credited screenwriters — playwrights Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott, and silent-era screenwriter-director Del Andrews — never make a false or unnecessary move in this immensely touching drama.

All Quiet on the Western Front's Paul Bäumer was Lew Ayres'(above) second sizable role (following Jacques Feyder's The Kiss, with Greta Garbo); even so, the then inexperienced 21-year-old actor brings a highly effective freshness to his idealistic schoolboy turned disillusioned soldier. Ayres' acting may be hardly what one would call subtle, but it's undeniably honest. (Ayres would later be a — much criticized by some — conscientious objector during World War II. He did, however, serve as a non-combatant.) In a brief supporting role, Beryl Mercer is flawless as the young man's mother. (Mercer replaced ZaSu Pitts, who plays the mother in the film's silent version.)

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