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).