"All Quiet on the Western Front" (Universal, 1930)

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Tarantella
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"All Quiet on the Western Front" (Universal, 1930)

Post by Tarantella » Tue Mar 25, 2014 6:23 pm

Last night I watched "All Quiet on the Western Front" - the brilliant Lewis Milestone film from 1930 and taken from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque (which I haven't read). But the DVD takes pride of place in my library, alongside such masterpieces as Griffith's "Birth of a Nation", Pabst's "Pandora's Box" and Murnau's "Nosferatu" and "Sunrise" - the latter has some partial sychronization.

There's much to say about "All Quiet on the Western Front", in case anybody is interested. Firstly, it was made when sound film was as yet in its nascent phase. I notice that the titles acknowledge "synchronization and scoring" and this touched my heart deeply. The film is virtually without music, save for occasional diegetic incursions. The great cinematographer Arthur Edeson has painted a stunning canvas in monochrome of the horror of the first world war, taken from the German perspective. There is some back-projection and use of matte, which are both rather primitive, but the tracking shots on the battleground and the use of the 'dolly' (the camera mounted on a moving tripod which actually moves in toto towards an object, rather than using a zoom lens) really freed up the camera at a time when these large, unwieldy objects were hamstrung by massive blimps to conceal the sounds of mechanisms and sprockets - not to mention being placed in booths - with microphones being concealed in lights or potplants. It was actually Edeson, IMO, who 'liberated' the camera and really got it moving for his action sequences, with sound. But the sound is unquestionably, and predictably, drummy and one-dimensional. Not so the image, script or acting. On that last point, I must qualify my comments by saying that cinema was still in an uncertain stage about the 'limits' of cinema acting, which included notions of timing - how much dialogue to use and how much time it should take up in the film. The acting style is, therefore, sometimes over-theatricalized with lines too rapidly delivered. But this does not spoil the film.

Secondly, Lewis Milestone (Russian emigre) directed the film with great sensitivity and under-statement, despite its 'global' narrative dimension. Lew Ayres plays the lead role and magnificent close-ups and static camera shots confer a kind of stillness amid the horror and chaos, allowing us to concentrate on the personal toll extracted by war on these young, idealistic men.

Finally, three scenes stand out; firstly, a young soldier dies in a hospital and the Lew Ayres character prays by his bedside. We suspect he's going to die but the first knowledge we have of this is a shot of Ayres wearing the man's boots in a halting walk down the steps and out, away from the hospital. Poetry right there. The second scene is one in the trenches where Ayres kills a French soldier and has to remain with him in the bunker because of the battle going on around him. But the French soldier dies very very slowly and the Ayres character becomes distraught about this, putting water to his dying lips with the sounds of gun and mortar fire going on out of shot. He finally touches the dying man on the shoulder and in a two shot of them (the soldier now dead) he asks,"Oh why did you make me kill you? I didn't want to." Right at that moment enemy becomes friend. It's one of the most powerful anti-war scenes I've ever watched, though it isn't there to accuse or blame (as stated in the opening titles).

The final scene which deserves mention is absolutely magnificent and one of the greatest images in American cinema; Ayres is in a bunker and he spies a butterfly outside - which symbolizes freedom and nature far removed from his 'imprisonment'. In a moment which speaks about humanity he reaches out through a hole in the bunker to touch the butterfly - and this shot comprises a close-up of his hand - when he is then killed by a sniper's bullet. The hand goes limp and, without any sound or music, the final tableau shows a line of the dead soldiers walking away from camera, looking back at us over their shoulders - all of this superimposed over white crosses like those in a war graveyard.

It's a masterpiece.

Here's a Wiki entry about the great Arthur Edeson, just to provide some general background information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Edeson

david johnson
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Re: "All Quiet on the Western Front" (Universal, 1930)

Post by david johnson » Wed Mar 26, 2014 2:52 am

haven't seen it in a while. I thought he was reaching toward a flower. a good flick anyway :)

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