Release Year: 1930
Genre: Drama, War
Director: Lewis Milestone
Writers: Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, C. Gardner Sullivan, Erich Maria Remarque (novel)
World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Spoiler alert: things didn't work out as planned. Rather than end war, the conflict ushered the world into the era of modern warfare.
And then, in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front looked to be the war movie to end all war movies. More spoilers ahead: that also didn't work out. Instead, the film became a template for future war movies, using realistic stories to promote anti-war sentiments.
Released a mere twelve years after the end of the war it depicts, All Quiet on the Western Front attempts to show WWI through eyes of an everyday German soldier. Yep, you read that right: a German soldier. Wanting to show that the horrors of war affect both sides of a battlefield, American director Lewis Milestone and producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. crafted a film of unprecedented scale.
Laemmle gave the film a then-unheard of budget of $1.25 million, and Milestone used that new-fangled "talkies" technology to bring the war to life on giant sets on a California ranch that recreated the devastation of the Western Front (source). And don't be fooled by the fact that this movie is old—its war scenes have the visceral oomph to make even modern audiences cringe.
The film tells the story of Paul Bäumer and his buddies. After their blowhard teacher convinces them of the glory and heroism found in war, the young men enlist to fight for Germany. After a grueling boot camp, they're sent to the Front where their patriotic zeal is blasted away by the realities (not to mention the bombs) of war.
Paul witnesses the deaths of friends, kills other men, and discovers that, far from heaping glory upon him, the war has left him and his generation blooded and broken.
Like the novel that inspired it, All Quiet was a smash hit. The New York Times said, "It tells the story of the terrors of fighting better than anything so far has done in animated photography coupled with the microphone" (source).
And if a rave from the NY Times weren't enough, the flick went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, the first film ever to take home both prizes.
In 1990, the Library of Congress inducted the film into the National Film Registry, and in 1998 the film was restored by the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center—this is probably the version you'll be watching.
We're not saying that watching All Quiet on the Western Front is going to be fun. It's about the furthest thing from "fun" you can get. But it's one of those movies that's not only important for popcorn-butter-fingered film geeks like us—it's important for everyone.
So wrap yourself up in a blanket—we don't care if it's August and you're watching this in Texas; you'll want to feel cozy when you look at all that frigid trench warfare. Get yourself a nice bowl of mac 'n' cheese—we don't care if you just finished eating Thanksgiving dinner; you'll want to eat when you see these dudes starving in the trenches. And make sure to call your buddy after you finish watching—you're going to need the moral support.
Because this movie is devastating.
If your mom's anything like ours, then she has a dictionary of terms to describe her disgust of TV. "Boob tube," "idiot box," "brain drain," "plug-and-drug," and even "the couch potato's microwave"—we've heard them all.
Here's the thing though: watching that beautiful, flickering screen can make you a better person.
As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes,
Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers' circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. (Source)
Pinker adds that movies and TV offer this…but with even more immediacy. (Feel free to quote Dr. Pinker the next time you and your mom discuss the merits of your latest Netflix binge.)
But if your mother still isn't convinced and needs a real-life example of visual storytelling's empathy-growing powers, then we recommend All Quiet on the Western Front.
The film adapts the story of the German World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German himself. But—and here's where empathy comes in—it was produced by an American studio. And despite this film's sympathetic view of German soldiers, All Quiet was popular with American audiences, people who'd fought against the Germans a decade earlier (source).
These American audiences empathized with the German characters of the film, seeing their own wartime sufferings reflected in their enemies.
And that legacy of empathy continues on. Most of the gritty modern war/anti-war dramas we know and love today are inspired, in one way or another, by All Quiet on the Western Front. The film's grittiness, its lack of schmaltzy music in favor of the creepy "music" of shells and human screaming, and its total poignancy are all echoed in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, and Hotel Rwanda.
So the next time your eyes are filled with tears during a war movie—even if the soldiers shown onscreen have nothing in common with you but humanity and a fear of death—take a second to thank Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front.
Or, better yet, take a few hours to watch the original masterpiece. As famous film critic Leonard Maltin says, "time hasn't dimmed its power, or its poignancy, one bit" (source).
We'll add to Maltin's assessment: time hasn't dimmed All Quiet on the Western Front's ability to make you feel empathetic, either.
The Nazis didn't care for All Quiet on the Western Front due to its lack of pro-national fervor. And they weren't fans of the source material. Remarque's novel found itself on the Nazi's banned and burned list…and ultimately it would be a crime to own the novel in Nazi Germany. (Source)
Arthur Gardner was the last surviving member of the cast and crew. He passed away on December 19, 2014. He has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as a student in Paul's class. (Source)
Lewis Milestone had Universal scout the Los Angeles area to find German Army veterans to ensure the film's authenticity in equipment and uniforms. So many veterans answered the call that Milestone casted many as German soldiers in the film and had them drill extras playing the troops. (Source)
Since the last scene of the movie was filmed during post-production, Lew Ayres, the actor who played Paul, wasn't available. So director Lewis Milestone stepped up and played Paul—well, Paul's hand—in that tragic scene. (Source)
Turner Classic Movies has all the historic and production details for All Quiet on the Western Front. And we mean all the details.
More than eighty years after its initial release, All Quiet still holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one well-preserved piece of cinematic freshness.
Totally Epic, Brah.
All Quiet takes its rightful place on AFI's Top 10 Epics. While it may not be the most epic of epics, it finds a spot among nine peerless peers.
Here you'll find the list of the National Film Registry—films that have been preserved for their cultural and historical significance. All Quiet is there, among some other fan favorites.
Erich Maria Remarque's novel was the source of Milestone's film. Like its cinematic brethren, the novel was a hit with everyone except the Nazis, which is basically history's way of saying, "Give it a read."
Too Much of a Good Thing
A sequel to All Quiet from famed director James Whale. What could possibly go wrong? According to critics, a whole lot.
This 1979 version of All Quiet was made for TV. Despite the smaller screen, it didn't scale down the horrors suffered by the volunteer soldiers and includes some scenes not found in the 1930 version, such as the terrifying chlorine gas scene.
An entire book dedicated to the history of All Quiet? Could such a thing be? It could, and here it is.
Sitting on Top of the World
AMC's Filmsite.com provides reviews for its 100 Greatest Films for forever and a day. Wouldn't you know it? All Quiet has a place on the list.
The Good Ol' Days
The Telegraph reviews All Quiet in 2015 to see if time has diminished the so-called timeless masterpiece. Spoiler: it hadn't.
Let's Do the Time Warp
The New York Times has published its 1930 review of All Quiet here.
The Sound of Silence
Blogger Chris Edwards provides a review of the not as well-known, but no less well-made, silent version of All Quiet.
Back in the Saddle Again
Modern trailers could learn a thing or two from All Quiet's theatrical re-release trailer. Lesson One: don't give away the entire film as early as possible.
The Maltin Effect
Leonard Maltin loves him some All Quiet. He'll explain why here.
Watch Mojo counts down the top 10 movies of the 1930s. It's not a matter of if All Quiet will make the list, but where it'll place.
The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup is the comedic cousin to All Quiet—both feature strong anti-war and anti-nationalism messages. (Also, any reason to link to Duck Soup is a good reason.)
No So Quiet
Universal's cartoon parody of All Quiet, "Not So Quiet," featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt Disney created Oswald for Universal before creating Mickey Mouse and founding the Disney empire, so…guess Oswald wasn't that lucky after all.
A Ritual to Read
In case the movie hasn't rattled you enough, you can listen to the audiobook of Remarque's novel here.
The Name Game
Here's a link to Elton John's "All Quiet on the Western Front," because who doesn't love an up-beat anti-war melody?
The Face of War
This poster for All Quiet features Behn before his unfortunate fate.
Explosions! Action! Credits!
Here you'll find All Quiet's more action-oriented poster. It's so action-packed the font screams at you.
Brothers in Arms
A shot from Paul's harrowing experience with the dying French soldier.
Here's a screenshot from the final shot of the film. Do not click if you haven't seen it yet.
Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone
Just look at those eyes. Kantorek is just crazy with nationalism.