For a guy who won two Oscars and directed one of the ten best war movies ever made, you don't hear much about Lewis Milestone anymore. He never shows up on the list of history's greatest directors, his movies aren't the subject of film festivals and retrospectives.
Yet when it came time to hand out the Katie for best director of 1929-30, I happily passed over many better-known names—Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, F.W. Murnau—and went right for Lewis Milestone. By whatever standard you measure a director's worth, whether as an artist, an acting coach, a problem solver or a resource manager, this one time Milestone surpassed them all and in doing so, earned a seat at the table of his era's best directors.
As I mentioned in my essay about this year's best screenplay, All Quiet On The Western Front was one of the biggest novels of the late 1920s, selling 2.5 million copies in just eighteen months, and despite the gamble inherent in filming a big budget war picture right after the crash of the stock market, the head of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, quickly snapped up the rights to the novel and slated it for production.
With only eight feature-length movies under his belt when he was tapped to direct, the relatively inexperienced Milestone wouldn't have seemed to be the obvious choice to helm such a prestige picture with the economic future of the studio on the line. But Milestone (born in Russia in 1895 as Lev Milstein) had already proven himself an adept storyteller with a style characterized by gritty realism and a fluid camera, and at the first Academy Award ceremony, he had taken home the only Oscar ever awarded for comedy direction, a war movie to boot, Two Arabian Knights, a lighthearted romp about two American soldiers captured by the Germans during World War I only to escape and wind up rescuing an Arabian princess (Mary Astor).
Despite its radically different tone, Two Arabian Knights was something of a dry run for Milestone, mixing battle scenes and daring escapes with realistic portrayals of the soldier's life. It even starred Louis Wolheim who provided such strong support in All Quiet On The Western Front.
One of the most significant choices Milestone made in directing All Quiet On The Western Front was the decision never to provide the audience with a strategic overview of the war, not just in terms of the story, which remains tightly focused on a group of young boys who have volunteered for war straight from their classroom, but in terms of his camera as well. There are no shots of maps, no soaring tours over the battlefield to give you a sense of where the warring armies are in relation to each other, no visual signals about their tactical or strategic aims.
At the same time, however, while Milestone is effective at making you feel the confusion of war, he himself is never confused about what he's trying to show you—and if you've seen some recent movies, where directors hide the limitations of both the action and their imaginations with a rapid blur of edits, you understand there's a big difference between the two.
A good example of this comes during the first great battle sequence, one the greatest cinematic achievements up to its time. The camera sweeps low to the ground, almost always at the eye level of the men in the trenches. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson—as anonymous these days as Milestone despite also working on Casablanca—reminds you once again of the power of live action over cartoonish computer-generated images, particularly with the shot of a machine gun panning down a line of charging soldiers, then the reverse shot of the charging soldiers falling as the camera sweeps past, human bodies falling in the unpredictable ways an animated image, unbound by gravity, cannot replicate.
The sequence includes an impressive artillery barrage, with real explosions running down the line, throwing fine particles of dirt and the dead into the air, and you feel an adrenaline rush as an overwhelming enemy charges. From the point of view of the soldier, it's all churning legs and rifles, bayonets suddenly at one another's throats as the line is breached and the men engage in hand-to-hand combat, and then as the battle rages, men collapse in exhaustion, gasping for breath, their faces grimy with sweat, blood, wincing in pain, Milestone showing you something you don't often see in a war film, the real sense of physical exertion, the weariness and thirst, just taking the time in the middle of battle to show a man knock the throat off a bottle of wine for a badly needed drink.
One other point I want to make, since we're now talking about the Early Sound Era, is that Milestone didn't let the primitive sound recording technology hobble him. Instead, he used the relatively new technology to ramp up his audience's emotional response—you hear the bombs constantly exploding, you hear men gasping for breath, and when during one of the greatest set pieces of this or any other movie, a French soldier passes through the various stages of suffering on the way to death, ultimately culminating in a terrible silence, Milestone largely conveys the scene with sound.
And earlier, in a set piece that acts as a mirror to the French soldier's death, Milestone lets a quiet moment when the young German soldier played by Lew Ayres sleeps with a French girl unspool entirely offscreen, with just the shadow of a bedpost on a wall and two voices unable to communicate with words and yet saying everything that needs to be said.
All Quiet On The Western Front premiered in April 1930 to immediately critical acclaim and box office success and that November, Milestone won the second Oscar of his career. The movie has lost none of its power over the years and remains one of the best war movies ever made.
Today, Lewis Milestone is largely forgotten by all but hardcore film buffs. Although he won two Academy Awards, was nominated for a third and made forty-eight movies over four decades—including, in addition to his two Oscar winners, The Front Page, Of Mice And Men, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers and The Red Pony—most of his career after All Quiet On The Western Front lacked focus. He became head of production at United Artists in 1932, decamped for Columbia and a bigger paycheck in 1934, then moved on to Paramount in 1935, directing few movies along the way. Accused after the war of being a Communist sympathizer, in November 1946 he took the Fifth in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and while he was not blacklisted, his choice of projects was limited.
After directing the original Ocean's Eleven with the Rat Pack in 1960 and the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny On The Bounty two years later, Milestone retired and died in 1980 at the age of eighty-five.
Trivia: The famous last shot of the hand reaching for the butterfly is not in the book and was conceived in the editing room after the cast had been released. The hand in the close-up is Milestone's own.