Study Guide

All Quiet on the Western Front Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Lewis Milestone

    No doubt you recognize the names of great directors when you hear them: Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola. These guys are household names, but who's this Lewis Milestone guy?

    Only the best director you've never heard of.

    Lewis Milestone was born in Russia as Lev Milstein before immigrating to the United States in 1913. He served in the Army during WWI, making training films as an assistant director (source).

    But his greatest contribution to "the war to end all wars" wouldn't be showing troops the intricacies of left-left-left-right-left. It would come a full decade later when he directed his anti-war masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front.

    Milestone began his Hollywood career during the silent film era. Other than a couple of shorts, his directorial debut was Seven Sinners (1925). Quick to rise to prominence, he won an Academy Award for the silent comedy Two Arabian Knights in 1927, and by 1929 he was directing his first talkie picture, New York Nights.

    A mere five years after his debut, he directed the film that would ensure his place in the cinematic canon—yup, All Quiet on the Western Front.

    For All Quiet, Milestone captured the spirit of the novel by showing the war from the muddied-and-bloodied perspective of a German grunt. He decided not to use background music, using only the sounds of machine guns and shellfire to punctuate the scenes. He didn't hold back on the violence either.

    As one story goes, when the studio worried about the downbeat story, Milestone responded: "I just found a way to get you a happy ending. The Germans win" (source).

    Despite directing movies for another three decades, All Quiet would largely be considered his best movie and the one held in the highest critical regard (source).

    This isn't to say he peaked early or struggled to find meaningful work. His career was storied; he just happened to make such an amazing film that viewers have enjoyed it these past eighty years.

    After All Quiet

    As his career continued, Milestone showed a love and talent for adapting literature to the silver screen. Among his many adaptations are Rain (1932), based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story; Of Mice and Men (1939), based on the John Steinbeck novel; and Les Miserables (1952), based on Victor Hugo's novel.

    Oh, and lest we forget, he also directed the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford.

  • Screenwriter

    Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews, George Abbott, C. Gardner Sullivan

    How many writers does it take to screw in a light blub? Four: one to screw in the light bulb and three to provide editorial notes on his character development and the thematic implications of lefty loosey, righty tighty.

    How many writers does it take to adapt one bestselling novel for the silver screen? Same answer…minus the lightbulb.

    Maxwell Anderson was hired first to write the screenplay because of his work on the 1926 WWI comedy-drama What Price Glory. According to Garry Wills, "[h]is first attempt, guided by the film's producer, failed to ascend above easy movie clichés, but he, screenwriter Del Andrews, and Milestone were able to refashion it, with the help of theatrical genius George Abbott" (source).

    After All Quiet, Anderson continued to write plays—many of which would be adapted for cinema—as well as other screenplays. He would work with Milestone again, penning the 1932 screen adaptation for Rain.

    Before assisting Anderson on All Quiet, Del Andrews had written a few screenplays, but his main job in Hollywood was as a director. During the 1920s, he received directing credits for a whooping forty-two films, several of them shorts and westerns (source).

    George Abbott also received a screenplay credit for All Quiet. He worked as a producer, director, playwright, screenwriter, and film director—resulting in an impressive (if somewhat crammed) business card. During his storied career, Abbott would win five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fiorello! (source).

    Oh, and let's not forget C. Gardner Sullivan, who received a script supervisor credit on the film. Sullivan began as a newspaper reporter before making the jump to scripts. He "began producing films for [Cecil B.] DeMille in the mid-'20s" and "also produced films for his own company" (source).

    And, of course, we should probably give Erich Maria Remarque his dues for writing the novel the screenplay was based on. But you can read about his accomplishments in our All Quiet on the Western Front discussion here.

  • Production Studio

    Universal Studios

    Imagine you're 21 years old and your father finally thinks you're responsible enough for the keys—not to the family car, but to the family movie studio. You mess this one up, and you're not just out some touch-up paint and repair shop fee. People's jobs and millions of dollars are on the line.

    Kind of puts that fender-bender your dad won't stop griping about in perspective, doesn't it?

    That's exactly what happened to Carl Laemmle Jr. when his father, Laemmle Sr., made him head of production of Universal Studios in 1929. At the time the studio was known for "low-budget family fare," but Laemmle Jr. announced his intentions to shift the studio's focus to "prestige films" (source).

    Today, we take it for granted that Universal works with big, epic pictures. It's the film studio that distributed Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and Jurassic Park (1993).

    It was also the first studio to have three films gross more than $1 billion dollars worldwide box office in a single year—Minions, Furious 7, and Jurassic World in 2015 if you're curious (source).

    To get the one-day billion dollar ball rolling, Laemmle Jr. decided to purchase the rights to Erich Maria Remarque's worldwide bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

    According to Leonard Maltin, Laemmle Jr. "spared no expense" and "wanted [All Quiet] to be his signature film and one of the great films." He would give the film a budget of $1.5 million, which was a huge investment back in 1929 (source).

    The down payment paid off. All Quiet would earn back roughly $3 million and become the first picture to win the Academy Award for best film and best direction (source).

  • Production Design

    Reels on Reels on Reels of Real...Film

    Do not adjust your television sets! All Quiet hasn't been the victim of pan-and-scan, and fiddling with your settings won't get rid of those scratchy lines you see.

    When restoring the film, the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center had to work with extant reels of actual film.

    Working with such old-school material, the MPCC had to stick with All Quiet's 1.33:1 aspect ratio. They also couldn't digitally remove all the wear and tear on the 35 mm film—which coincidentally, is the same size film you'll find inside those camera canisters your parents keep in the back of the fridge (source).

    But despite looking less than stellar in today's IMAX home theaters, the film's production still retains an epic quality that hasn't diminished in the past eighty years.

    Go Epic or Go Home

    World War I was an epic war in terms of death, destruction, and the scale of the battlefields. There were an estimated 8,528,831 military causalities—not counting the millions of civilian deaths from causes such as attacks on non-combatant targets and otherwise preventable diseases (source).

    The war also cost 337 billion dollars in direct and indirect costs. Yeah. It was epically epic in terms of everything except, you know, improving the quality of life (source).

    So imagine you're trying to make a film that accurately depicts the reality of WWI for the average soldier. You're going to need to go big in order to adequately convey the scale of the dang thing. And that's exactly what director Lewis Milestone and producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. did for All Quiet on the Western Front.

    As noted by Felicia Feaster, All Quiet's production "used over 20 acres of a California ranch to stage the film's devastating battle scenes and employed more than 2,000 ex-servicemen as extras." All of this was provided by a then-staggeringly expensive budget of $1.5 million (source).

    Sure, by today's standards, these numbers aren't all that impressive. The funeral procession in Gandhi used 300,000 extras, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides burned a production budget of $397 million. (And it's not even the best Pirates movie.)

    But for 1930, these statistics were huge for a motion picture, and the results are battle scenes that remain harrowing even by today's standards.

    Expanding the Medium

    All Quiet also had its share of innovations to go along with its budget. It was the "the first talking picture to use a giant mobile crane for filming" (source).

    Crane shots were nothing new; they had been used throughout the silent era to show crowds or the grandeur of large sets. But the technical limitations of talkie films prevented such shots.

    For example, as Frank Miller points out at TCM.com, the camera would be "confined to a soundproof box so that the motor noise would not be heard on the soundtrack." Milestone overcame this technical limitation by shooting his crane shots silently and syncing the sound in postproduction. According to Miller, Milestone's achievement resulted in the "best syncing yet seen in a sound film" (source).

  • Music (Score)

    Well, Lack Thereof

    Despite the name, silent films were often anything but silent. In the really early years, theaters would employ piano players to provide accompaniment for the film. As the medium grew, larger theaters would host full orchestras, and studios might hire composers to write scores to be played live during the show (source).

    All Quiet on the Western Front was released when synchronized dialogue was being introduced to audiences—just four years after Don Juan (1926), the first feature-length film to used a synchronized soundtrack throughout its runtime, and three years after The Jazz Singer (1927), the "first feature-length Hollywood 'talkie' film in which spoken dialogue was used as part of the dramatic action" (source).

    Given the long love affair between movies and music, it must have been very surprising to 1930s audiences that director Lewis Milestone would choose to include very few musical compositions in All Quiet. We know it surprised us.

    The Sound of Silence

    For most of All Quiet's more than two-hour runtime, there's no background music. No shrill strings to punctuation moments of horror, no melancholic strings to accompany moments of loss, no full orchestra crescendos to announce moments of heroic triumph. No nothing.

    You'd think this would make All Quiet all, well, quiet, but Milestone does add sound his film. He just does so diegetically (source).

    Let's clarify our jargon: the word "diegetic" means some sound that originates from within the film's world—in this case, sounds like gunfire, screaming, and the squishing of mud. This is opposed to "non-diegetic" sounds, which include mood music.

    In the absence of non-diegetic music, All Quiet is orchestrated by the sounds of war: the percussion of marching soldiers, the stretches of silence before an offensive, and, of course, the trill of incoming shells.

    Milestone lets the "music" of war speak for itself. Rather than use mood music to clue the audience into how they should feel, he respects them enough to let them draw their own conclusions.

    Bookends

    With a film that's been cut and re-edited as much as All Quiet on the Western Front has, viewers throughout the decades have seen different versions, with different scores. During its initial release, some theater owners added their own music to the film, and when the film was played on TV in the '50s, music was included in the final scenes against Milestone's wishes (source).

    But the version of All Quiet you've most likely watched is the talkie version restored by the Library of Congress's Motion Picture Conservation Center. This version contains two musical cues, one at the film's opening and the other at its ending.

    The film's opening music accompanies the soldiers as they parade through the city streets. The music's upbeat, with the militaristic flair of marching drums and proud trumpets. It represents the nationalistic pride felt by the soldiers and cheering citizens.

    It also cues us in to the optimistic mindset of the populace as it views the war as something to celebrate. The music is pure patriotism, and as the camera slides into Kantorek's classroom, the music fades and is replaced with Kantorek's lesson, which is equally chauvinistic in theme.

    The film's ending music is a stark contrast to the opening. Rather than a proud martial march, the final scene is accompanied by a single, mournful harmonica. The harmonica represents Paul's state of mind in this final scene, depressed over what the war has done to his life and the lives of his friends.

    Yup: nothing more depressing than a harmonica. (Sorry, Bob Dylan. It's true.)

    Man With the Credit

    David Broekman's credited with All Quiet's synchronization and score. Broekman's movie credits begin in the transitional years between silent and talkie films, with the majority of his work concentrated in the 1930s.

    He worked as a composer for films such as White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), Tarzan the Tiger (1929), and Outside the Law (1930). Throughout the '30s, he also worked on synchronization and as a musical supervisor.

    As we said earlier, silent films were anything but silent, and a silent cut of All Quiet was created for theaters that had yet to upgrade for talkies. In case you have a version of this rare find, know the score for the silent version was composed by Broekman as well.

  • Fandoms

    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in the early days of cinema, and fandoms didn't exist back then like they do today. No one went to conventions cosplaying as Himmelstoss, and if you asked someone if the film had a Wikipedia entry, she'd ask, "You wikied a what now? Should I be concerned?"

    But the film's fans do exist—even if they aren't having trench-themed weddings. Their rank consists mainly of film buffs, scholars, and historians, and they've done their best to promote the film to new generations of film fans.

    Film critic Leonard Maltin has often praised the film and wrote program notes for its latest Blu-ray release. He also suggested Universal include the film's silent version, so audiences could compare both versions of the film—although he admits the film is a great experience either way you watch it (source).

    Author Andrew Kelly wrote an entire book dedicated to its history. The American Film Institute placed All Quiet on its Top 10 Epics. It even held a spot on AFI's original 100 Greatest Movies list…but was bumped off in the updated version (source).

    We'd complain, but have you seen that updated list? That's some stiff competition.

    Yet the greatest act of fandom has to go to the Library of Congress. The organization included the film on its National Film Registry "to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America's film heritage." Its Motion Picture Conservation Center then worked with extant copies to restore and reshape the film to be as close to Milestone's original cut as possible (source).

    Chances are if you've seen the film today on DVD or Blu-ray, then this is the edition you've watched…ensuring the film can find new fans for another eighty-plus years.