A young soldier faces profound disillusionment in the soul-destroying horror of World War I.
Year 2, Film #48
THE REVIEW: It’s a new year and to kick things off is early Best Picture winner (actually Outstanding Production) All Quiet on the Western Front. As I did last year in January leading up to this year’s Oscar nominations and during the height of awards season, I’ll be watching a large number of past (and possibly present) Best Picture nominees and winners. The list currently stands at eight but that may grow as the month goes on. All Quiet on the Western Front was the third Best Picture winner way back in 1930 and while it doesn’t quite live up to filmmaking today, is pretty incredible to see what people could accomplish back then while telling a simple story.
Whenever you watch an older film, especially ones as far back as the 1930s, you have to cut a bit of slack here and there. Recording diegetic sounds while filming was hard enough let alone going back in to insert additional sound effects. Cameras were big and clunky which prevented really complicated and interesting shots. Looking at a film like All Quiet on the Western Front today is difficult because we’re used to technology that’s much more advanced making better and more entertaining films easier to make. I say all this because in order to see the good in this film (and many older films like this), you have to be willing to look past different styles and technique that were necessary at the time. It isn’t to say that you must reward the film for being shot poorly — if the film is bad, there’s not much that even fancy technology could fix — but that you need to at least give the film a chance before turning away.
When you do that, a few things stand out in All Quiet on the Western Front. The first is how convincing the film manages to be. I’ve seen a lot of war films over the years, including the fantastic Lone Survivor which is the most gritty, heart-pounding, and in-the-action war film of the past few years. That film is extraordinarily real and highly convincing down to the bone crunching and blood dripping. But in a strange way, All Quiet on the Western Front also had an incredible level of believability. The sounds were horrible (the same bomb effect played repeatedly, always too loud and distorted), a lot of sounds were missing (there almost no guns despite seeing many being fired), and the cameras kept on a pretty wide angle as opposed to the close-ups and shaky cam we’re used to today (and is used in Lone Survivor). Despite all these seemingly negative aspects, I still found myself wincing at parts and feeling as if what I was seeing was more real than films today. Now, this isn’t true for the entire film. There were many parts, especially when soldiers were running away and falling down after an explosion, that screamed fake. For whatever reason, every time someone fell, it was instantly recognizable that the whole thing was staged as they slowly and gracefully fall to the ground. Go to the trenches though where all the action takes place, and your swept away right there with the soldiers watching legs be blown off and bullets piercing helmets.
The second thing that stood out was how powerful the story and message of the film was. There really isn’t a plot — it’s just: World War I happens — and not much really goes on besides young boys joining the army and then going off to die for their country (which is Germany, something I found quite surprising when I figured that out halfway through the film; I thought for sure it would be from America’s perspective). And while that means some parts of the film are excruciatingly slow, it was also great just to see the way of life. This film has been on my list for a while not just because it won Best Picture, but because there aren’t that many World War I films out there. All Quiet on the Western Front shows you what it was like in the trenches, the trauma the soldiers went through from hearing bombs constantly dropping, the pain and suffering they faced when they lost a friend on the battlefield, and the disparity between the people at home convincing others to join the army because it’s patriotic to serve and die for your country and the men out on the field who are no longer sure why they’re out there being forced to kill others.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a decent film that holds up quite well. There are many reasons to dismiss the movie including the fact that it’s simply different from films we’re used to nowadays, but if you’re able to look past that, there’s something there to entertain you. It depicts war in a strangely convincing way that at times can seem more real than recent films and it provides a commentary on the nature of war that more people should hear. I won’t excuse all the film’s problems just because it’s old though. Some actions are very clearly staged and the story can be quite tedious at times, both things I would mark off for any film, including this one. Overall though, I’m glad I saw All Quiet in the Western Front, problems and all.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5