Thursday, 28 July 2016

Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" – What is it good for?

I confess I wasn’t greatly looking forward to a three-hour film that I suspected could be summed up in a short sentence: “War is bad.”  But All Quiet on the Western Front is a fascinating film that sometimes seems far more modern than its 1930 date.


There are some key decisions that make this film successful and which I believe have kept it relevant for so long.

  • No musical score is used
  • It is based on a decent novel
  • It’s a WWI film shown from a German viewpoint
  • Given that the Germans are shown speaking English, no attempt is made at comedy German accents
  • There are impressive long ranging battlefield scenes
  • It pushed the limit of what could be shown on screen so it does not seem excessively sanitized from the reality of war

These points taken together produce a powerful experience and the battlefield scenes in particular are as convincing and harrowing as any of the various modern attempts to show similar scenes.  In terms of tone and choice of shots I would go further and say these scenes are more effective than say the battlefield scenes in Saving Private Ryan, etc.

There is perhaps a question over whether stories as serious and troubling as world war are better handled as documentary or fiction.  In some ways the compromises of fiction undermine the importance of the history.  For example, is it realistic that all the men get on so well in the group?  Perhaps a true fly on the wall documentary (even though it would be impossible to achieve) would show a far messier picture.  And the simple craft of structure, cause and effect, character and symbols (the special boots, to take just one example from this film) that are an unavoidable part of fiction have a tendency to trivialize history, however subtly they are applied (in truth, not very subtly in the case of the ‘cursed’ boots.)

Review continues below...

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Trouble is, it’s hard to imagine how WWI could be engagingly shown without fiction.  When archive footage tends to be heavily propagandized and limited in its scope and when the people involved are dead, what can you do?  The dreadful reconstructions inserted into television documentaries are clearly not the answer.  Eyewitness interviews such as the holocaust film Shoah are a good solution but are never going to get huge audiences.  Perhaps the only answer is some compromise similar to what Lewis Milestone achieved in All Quiet.  Many ex-German soldiers were apparently used in the making of the film, both as extras and to check authenticity, and the trouble taken pays off.

In the film, the characters have a simple discussion about why countries go to war, and they speculate whether it’s due to leaders wanting posthumous glory or because of the benefits to manufacturing companies.  It’s interesting to see how things have got even worse in modern times as the war technology that was seen for the first time in WWI has become so much more developed.  When countries such as the UK, America, China and Russia spend such a large percentage of their GDP on their military there is only one possible result: war.  If I spend a large chunk of my salary on a flashy car I’m not going to keep it in the garage.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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