From my post about the best picture of 1929-30, All Quiet On The Western Front
In the Twentieth Century, no war seemed like a better idea beforehand and a worse idea after than the First World War. Most of Europe, and eventually the United States, marched merrily into what turned out to be a highly-efficient meat grinder destroying for many nations an entire generation of young men, all in the pursuit of what turned out to be not much. I think we Americans don't fully grasp to what degree war ravaged Europe in the Twentieth Century. Britain, for example, during World War I suffered 2.6 million dead and wounded out of a population of 45 million; and France's loss of 6 million dead and wounded out of 40 million would be the equivalent of 45 million casualties for the present-day U.S., losses not only unthinkable today but incomprehensible.
Afterwards, the debate centered not so much on the question of "Should we have fought the war?" as on "How did we get suckered into it?" The level of disillusionment, grief and revulsion was so great, the key European powers sat back while Hitler gobbled up one country after another, and even after the Nazis had overrun most of Europe, invaded Russia and were bombing Britain on a daily basis, America's president, Franklin Roosevelt, had a hard time convincing the nation to even prepare for war, much less fight it. By the time the United States entered the conflict, it was damned near too late—and was, in fact, too late for millions of people.
The effort to make sense of World War I and the political, social and economic upheaval of its aftermath inspired some of the finest art and literature of the Twentieth Century—cubism, surrealism, Picasso, Hemingway, Proust. Possibly the best novel about the war itself was Erich Maria Remarque's best-selling novel, All Quiet On The Western Front, the story of a classroom of German schoolboys on their journey from enthusiastic volunteers to disillusioned veterans to buried corpses.
Carl Laemmle, the legendary head of Universal Studios, quickly bought the rights to the novel. Laemmle had worked as a bookkeeper for twenty years before investing in a string of nickelodeons, eventually founding his own film distribution company, Laemmle Film Service, which after a merger with three other film studios became Universal. He put his son, Carl, Jr., in charge of production and it was "Junior," as he was widely known, who produced All Quiet On The Western Front.
In adapting the novel for the screen, writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews retained the story's focus on the boys who fought and died in the war rather than on the generals and politicians who sent them, a focus that gave the book so much of its power. Director Lewis Milestone made the significant and (given that the studio was investing more than a million dollars in the production, a huge amount for the time, just weeks after the crash of the New York stock market) risky decision to cast young unknowns in the primary roles—and not in a J.J. Abrams, populate-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-with-GQ-pretty-boys sort of way either.
This choice, casting schoolboys to play schoolboys, is nearly unique in the history of Hollywood.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five that the problem with war stories is that instead of being about the children who actually manned the front lines, they all pretend wars were fought by grown men, "played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" which he said made war "look just wonderful, so we'll have lots more of them." And indeed, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne and William Holden and many others were too old, too mature, too poised, too experienced, for the parts they played. Even the superb Saving Private Ryan relied on a cast—Tom Hanks (42), Tom Sizemore (37), Edward Burns (30), Matt Damon (28)—too old for the parts they played.
With the exception of Louis Wolheim, a veteran of fifty movies including the Oscar-winning Two Arabian Knights, the cast of All Quiet On The Western Front is nearly as young as the parts they are playing. When the film went into production in November 1929, Russell Gleason and William Bakewell were twenty-one, Lew Ayres was twenty, Ben Alexander, eighteen. Richard Alexander (no relation) was the old man of the group at twenty-five.
These are boys, raw recruits who soil their under- wear during their first patrol, kids who've never been away from home, never had a drink, never so much as kissed a girl. Played by grown men, you might feel regret at their deaths, but you'd never get the same sense of how much is lost, how much of even the most basic aspects of life they've missed out on as when these parts are played by boys. The effect is tragic and poignant even now almost eighty years on.
The other significant choice Milestone made was to focus strictly on the war from the point of view of the unglamourous foot soldiers who fought it. No strategic overviews, no explanations of political objectives, not even a crane shot of the battlefield to let you know where the men are headed. Just a boot's level view (often literally) of the hunger, sleeplessness, fear, filth, lice, loneliness, rats, madness, amputations, shelling and unheroic death that was the daily routine for millions of men. Without a greater sense of the war's purpose, Milestone forced his audience to focus on the only goal that mattered to these boys, their survival.
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.
Milestone strove for an unprecedented level of realism as he directed the action, drilling his actors like soldiers and casting veterans of the German army in supporting roles. The effort especially paid off in an extraordinary sequence late in the film: an attack, counterattack and counterattack repulsed, nearly all of it shown from Lew Ayres' point of view as he shelters in a bomb crater, with, first, French soldiers leaping the hole in one direction, then leaping it in the other as the Germans drive them back, finally one unfortunate French soldier leaping on top of Ayres leading to a desperate struggle with a bayonet. Then during the day and night that follow as Ayres is trapped in no man's land between the two lines, he watches the French soldier's life slowly drain away, the plight of the Frenchman told in sound from his screams, his cries and finally his silence.
The movie concludes with a shot long thought lost but rediscovered in 1998 when the film was finally restored to its original length: the silent, ghostly image of the boys we've come to know marching off to war superimposed over acres of white crosses.
All Quiet On The Western Front premiered in Los Angeles on April 21, 1930, and was a critical and commercial success, grossing $3 million, more than twice its budget. The National Board of Review named it one of the ten best movies of the year, Photoplay magazine awarded Laemmle, Jr. the Medal of Honor for producing the best movie of the year. The movie even won Japan's Kinema Junpo Award for best foreign language film. On November 5, 1930, the Academy awarded it two Oscars, for best picture and best director.
Decades later, the National Film Preservation Board included All Quiet On The Western Front in the National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute included the film on its list of the 100 best American movies ever made and ten years later ranked it seventh among the list of best "epic" features. Steven Spielberg later acknowledged its influence on Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion, not only was All Quiet On The Western Front the best picture of 1930, it's one of the five best (anti-)war movies ever made and arguably was the best film of the entire Early Sound Era (1927-33).
Lew Ayres was so moved by the experience of making All Quiet On The Western Front that he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a controversial stand that led the U.S. military to broaden its definition of conscientious objection. After serving in the Medical Corps in the South Pacific, Ayres returned to Hollywood and was better than before he left. Already a star of the Young Dr. Kildare movies, Ayres went on to receive an Oscar nomination in 1949 for his role in Johnny Belinda. He worked steadily until 1994 and died in 1996 at the age of eighty-eight.