Jaws of Death, Mouth of Hell
Released just four August 1930 days after The Dawn Patrol, All Quiet on the Western Front now follows it by one week at the Museum of Modern Art. The former, on stoic World War I heroism in the air, was the virtual beginning of Howard Hawks’s storied career; the second and more acclaimed film of disillusionment on the ground won Oscars for director and picture. It proved to be a rather high water mark for Lewis Milestone, even if he did win a 1927 Best Comedy direction statuette and did make The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, A Walk in the Sun and World War II plus Korean War dramas.
The popular success of hugely expensive All Quiet had been a sure thing given the 1929 worldwide frenzy over Im Westen nichts Neues, so controversial in his homeland that wounded war veteran Erich Maria Remarque was early censored to Switzerland and thence emigrated to the United States. Himself an immigrant, born Lev Milstein near Odessa, and a veteran who learned his trade in a photographic unit of the U.S. Signal Corps, Milestone and co-scripters Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott could hardly hope for dramatic or any other sort of irony.
Instead, they toed the line close to the well-known anti-war novel. Thus the trajectory is from youthful starry-eyed sweet and seemly sentiments about dying for one’s country, through the reality of warfare, to a conclusion that it’s dirty and painful to die for it. The problem is that even in good pacifist war movies, the adrenalin rush of violence can seem as celebratory for audiences as it is deplorable. For example, the tracking shots here (so effective that the director returned to them in Pork Chop Hill) catch the exhilaration of attack, as opposed to retreat, and so it is left to the relatively quieter scenes and stilted speech -- “Kiss my boots!” “You yellow rat!” -- to carry the burden.
Paul Bäumer is played by Lew Ayres, who would never again equal this portrayal and would later be ostracized for his conscientious objector non-combatant stand in the second war. Behind, through symmetrical classroom windows, spike-helmeted troops march off as Herr Professor (Arnold Lucy) exhorts students to patriotism in this “short war.” Paul and his schoolmates enlist, are bullied by local corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray) and rushed to the shifting front of dugouts, connecting sandbagged trenches, barbed wire and flooded bomb craters (in the rain of Passchendale, the Third Battle of Ypres, more men drowned than died from gunfire).
The recruits are nursed through bombardment nerves, foraging, hunger, rats, Very lights and viscerally depicted combat by veteran Stanislaw “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim, dead of cancer within a year, his trademark broken nose from Cornell football). Second Company is kept up to hundred-fifty-man strength by sixteen-year-olds, as indecisive slaughter continues. With their comrades-in-arms, the central cadre of seven, too, is decimated: in a church converted to surgery, amputation finishes off Franz Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), his watertight boots inherited by Müller (Russell Gleason), whose legs are shown as he catches a bullet, the footwear passing on then to another; Detering (Harold Goodwin) will not again see his family, farm or peach trees, nor will Albert Kropp (William Bakewell) walk, even while haemorrhaging Paul is the only one ever to return from the “dying room.”
The seven are also accompanied by veteran Tjaden (George “Slim” Summerville), who too baldly debates war and their participation, and whose comic character is tricked out of the favors of three Frenchwomen enticed with his wine and bread. The camera shows only the silhouetted bedpost as Paul whispers to Suzanne in a foreign tongue that “I shall never see you again but I will never forget you.”
The most celebrated sequence shows the hero being trapped overnight in a cemetery shell-hole with dying Gerald Duval (voiceless comedian Raymond Griffith), the Frenchman he has knifed. In fall 1917, Paul goes home for R and R, to be shocked at the insensitivity there and ignorance of the facts, His father’s cronies debate strategy for “on to Paris,” while the schoolteacher and students label him a coward for decrying patriotism and war. Cooing “My Paul, my baby,” his mother (Beryl Mercer, replacing ZaSu Pitts) packs two pair of new underwear the night he determines to return early to his unit, who “are all I’ve got left.”
Fifty years later a three-part television remake updated the emotional if simplistic dialogue but overplayed its own post-Vietnam War attitudes. And one may well fear the rumored remake with Daniel Radcliffe. It would be hard to equal the timeless relevance and effects of the Milestone original.
(Released by Universal Pictures Corp. Not rated by MPAA.)