Cabin fever can be a good thing. After being stranded at my mother's house for several days I grabbed a boatload of dvd's that I had previously seen and decided to revisit a few old favorites. The idea was to see which films have grown on me, which may have lost their impact, or if nothing else pick a film I knew wasn't going to disappoint me. It had to be night, and I had to be in the right mood for All Quiet on the Western Front though. Make no mistake 1930 or not, it is a very heavy film, and one that you certainly have to be in the proper mood for. The film is a devastating emotional experience and one that is so powerful that it would hurt to make repeated viewings a hobby.
After the last AFI list was put out a low paid self appointed "know it all" was discussing the list. He claimed that comparing todays films to the films of the past was like putting Michael Jordan against basketball players of the 1930's. Rarely have I shook my head with more contempt over one man's ignorance actually receiving print in a major Chicago publication. You can look at films like Citizen Kane, Sunrise, and All Quiet on the Western Front and say that these films were innovative for their time, but can't compete with the effects of say the new Transformers movie. Are you kidding me? Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael would be spinning in their respective graves. Sure Welles, Murnau, and Milestone elevated the art of cinema, helped usher in sound, and set new benchmarks in mobile camera work, but is this really why these films continue to survive? Deep at the core of all these films, and the ones that truly matter after countless decades is the emotional core. The impact we get from movies does not diminish, and that is the sign of a truly great film. We feel Kane's isolation, we rejoice at the church scene in Sunrise, but no film I have ever seen in my life has hit me on such a powerful gut level like All Quiet on the Western Front. I spaced out my viewings, two years between the first two, and nearly 6 years since the last, but I found this film touched a raw nerve and provoked me the way no film has, except for the first two times I saw this one.
From the start of the film the war myth is being debunked. The young students are being brainwashed by a professor too old to do any of the fighting who thinks its noble, heroic, and glamorous to die for one's fatherland. At the same time we see the students envisioning themselves in the uniform and we see what their parents would think of it. A mother weeps at the sight of her young boy in uniform, and he hides his head in shame. It is here that point one is being made, all of these soldier's are some mother's son. As Paul (Lew Ayers) later spends the night with a dying French soldier whom he stabbed, he realizes that these men don't all have mothers and fathers. Some of them are fathers themselves, leaving wives to run farms, raise children, and deal with the shortage of supplies on the home front.
The film never once holds up on any punches, and nothing is glamorous here. There is no glory in war, in each of the fights shown we don't even see which side won the conflict. What matters is living or dying. The point of war as Paul soon discovers is not to die, and as he says anything is better than dying for your country. He knows its not heroic, its painful and torturous, agonizing and miserable. In between wondering when you're gonna die you have to deal with starvation, eating sawdust, taking swings at rats, and endlessly marching in ill fitted boots. The film's lone dose of patriotism comes at the beginning during the gallant parade where all the boys see the triumphant band, the swarms of girls, and imagine a life of all glory in short combat. The words of the professor are repeated near the end of the film when Paul is on leave and they sound so hollow and empty, yet still resonate with the impressionable young minds. This time the streets are nearly empty, there's no parade, there's no band, and the students keep getting sent out younger. As one veteran soldier says "The only thing they're good for is dying".
A sentiment echoed later in Apocalypse Now is Paul's disastrous leave. He is unable to handle life in the civilian world because he has been in the trenches too long. Out there he knows you live or die, and you have no time to think about anything else. At home he has to listen to his father and his drunken friends tell him how to win the war, young children call him a coward for speaking the truth, and a mother who still wants to believe her son is a little boy. At the end of his leave Paul says to himself "Why can't I just put my head in your lap and cry?" He says it to himself and its so potent, Paul is out of his world. The triumphant return home has been a crucial disappointment, and all he can think of is getting back to the front to join the only people who really know what it's all about.
I can go on, and probably will, but Milestone and cinematographer Arthur Edeson put together an amazing film. Milestone was in a particularly inventive period at this point in time, and refused to let sound interfere with him. Despite much of the audio being recorded later the film does have a well mixed sound track. Audio fades in and out and there is a perspective to it. Edeson was also taking the camera out on the field and endlessly tracking it around. In one of the film's most memorable shots a line of French soldiers are mowed down by German gunners, including one soldiers hand's being blown off as they grip to barb wire. Roughly one minute later the same camera movement is repeated with this wave of casualties being German, the endless slaughter is repeated. Milestone didn't just rest on tracking shots, he infused his film with an occasionally frantic editing rhythm that seems more Soviet than anything else. Angles are canted, super impositions abound, and nearly every shot contains some extensive three plane activity. Sure lenses at the time might not have been able to keep everything in focus at once, but Milestone was staging in depth before it was even a conscious film choice. What is even more extraordinary about the film and its emotional impact, is the picture has absolutely no non-diegetic music. The only music we here is a soldier playing a harmonica, and the original marching band. No score was made for the film, and it makes the ending that much more harrowing. I've said it before and I'll say it again, this might very well be the greatest film ever made.