It deserves "to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of dictionaries,” reported Variety in 1930. Alas, within a decade the world was at it again, and Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s WW1 novel has never left active service.
All Quiet On The Western Front is an encyclopaedia of combat for directors everywhere, its imagery and ideas rippling through countless conflict pics.
Remarque’s episodic story charts German soldier Paul’s (Lew Ayres) journey from idealistic new recruit to embittered veteran, establishing every genre cliché – the dehumanising drills; the reality check of first engagement; the bloody demise of comrades; the uncomprehending idiocy of the folks back home.
Milestone nails each with such assurance that even future genre heavyweights Kubrick and Spielberg became copycats. Crucially, Milestone shot documentary footage during the actual war, so doesn’t whitewash the horror.
Sober and unsparing, by telling the Germans’ story, there’s none of Hollywood’s usual triumphant tub-thumping.
Only in a surreal interlude where Paul is trapped with an enemy corpse does mawkishness creep in. It’s all the more impressive because All Quiet was filmed using side-by-side cameras, the first synced for sound, the second silent for international sales.
Here, for the first time, both versions are presented on disc, confirming how much the film’s command of tone owes to those dual imperatives.
Shackled by cumbersome sound equipment, Milestone restricts camera moves to better capture the claustrophobic panic of men waiting to die... only to swoop across no man’s land with wild, virtuoso fluidity come the big push.
Milestone relishes sound – sometimes too much, the anti-war talk as bludgeoning as the relentless shelling. Yet the privates’ gallows wit adds a layer missing from the silent cut and, if Paul is forever monologuing, Ayres’ subtle body language reminds that not everybody could hear him.
The film’s most inventive set-pieces remain purely visual: a montage pursuing a pair of boots from owner to owner; and the famous finale involving barbed wire and a butterfly.
It’s a shame, then, that this Blu-ray offers so little context. As the flagship of Universal’s centenary celebrations, extras focus on the studio’s exemplary restoration work, but the film itself is ill-served.
Given its pivotal role, and rumours of a Daniel Radcliffe remake, the absence of either commentary or doc is worth fighting over.