3. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) Dir. Lewis Milestone

Viewed on: Saturday 11th March 2023

While 1930 was maybe a bit too soon for a film directly attacking the American contribution to 1914-18, a story focussed on the German experience was evidently allowable. US audiences could decide for themselves how much of All Quiet corresponded to their own experiences. And I suppose that would have been most of it. Lewis Milestone’s US-made adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s German novel became the second film set during the Great War to take ‘Best Picture’ honours, and the first example of a regular Oscar-winning formula – the liberal-crowd-pleasing-message-movie. Indeed, in the very week I’m writing this, a 2022 adaptation of the same book has just been shortlisted for ‘Best Picture’. It didn’t win this time around, but it did get ‘Best International Feature’.

From a Gramscian perspective, this sort of thing might be described as leftism validating hegemony: acting as a sanctioned form of protest, and sustaining the illusion that the powerful are open to debate while doing nothing to change the hard realities of social inequality. The privileged liberals of MPAAS use their position to express an ideology antithetical to the very system from which they continue to benefit. Thus, the Oscar goes to All Quiet, in which the war’s exploitation of the poor is abhorred, but with a sorrowful acceptance of inevitability. There is no sense of an alternative.

Brecht, I imagine, would have hated this movie*. It constructs a vision of war in which the only responses available are self-deception (the people back home), cynical survivalism (most of the soldiers at the front) or lamentation for the dead and injured (as in the hospital scenes). Any resistance we see is minor and/or personal. Compared with, for example, with Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp, with Alan Bleasdale’s remarkable script for The Monocled Mutineer, with Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, or even with Blackadder Goes Forth, this is more straightforward, less subversive and, from a message perspective, less interesting.

Nevertheless, there are many things to enjoy and/or admire in All Quiet… The grimness of the trenches is impressively realised. The brutality and despondency are leavened by characterful performances and interspersed with moments of comedy. The camerawork is often lively and inventive – far more so than most other films from the early sound era.

We watched the brilliantly restored (by the Library of Congress) version on Blu-Ray. This disc also includes the ‘International Sound’ version of the movie with music, audio effects and intertitles rather than the standard soundtrack. Apparently, these versions were produced so films could be distributed easily in non-English speaking territories. Interesting to dip into, but I can’t imagine anyone choosing to watch it all the way through.  

Fun fact: Fred Zinnemann, later to direct three of his own Best Picture winners, was an extra in All Quiet… until he was sacked for messing about.

*After writing this, I came across a New Yorker article that suggests neither Brecht nor Thomas Mann had any time for Remarque’s novel. So I was right.  

3rd Academy Awards 1930

Winner: All Quiet on the Western Front – Universal

Also nominated:

The Big House – Cosmopolitan
Disraeli – Warner Bros.
The Divorcee – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The Love Parade – Paramount Famous Lasky