Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)

All Quiet on the Western Front is often cited as the first "good" Best Picture winner. This isn't a unrealistic claim; Wings has moments of technical flair but it doesn't shake one's core and The Broadway Melody is...The Broadway Melody. Where its predecessors are "romantic" and "fun", All Quiet... takes a turn for the serious and important and grim. It is also the first of our BP's based on a novel: WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues published in 1928.

The film begins in a German schoolhouse where Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) preaches to his students on the Glory of War and how they need to go die for their country, yadda, yadda, yadda. The students are whipped into such a patriotic fervor, they quit school and immediately join the war effort. We follow our protagonist Paul Bäumer (Lewis Ayres) and his schoolmates from basic training to violent battlefields, rat infested trenches, endless marching, starvation, amputation, insanity, and crippling loneliness. As Paul's friends get picked off one by one, he grows closer to the older Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) but he can't fight the disillusionment off for long.

The anti-war film is no stranger to Best Picture. The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), and The Hurt Locker (2009) would go on to win the top prize in their respective years with the same themes. But we must remember that this was the first of the sound era. It blows my mind that a mere two years ago Wings, sentimental, romantic little Wings, won Best Picture. Where that film is enjoyable, All Quiet... is pretty much joyless. It's uncomfortable most of the time and downright horrifying at some peak moments: Paul spending the night in a shell crater with a Frenchman he killed. A tracking shot of a row of infantrymen being mowed down by a machine gun. A pair of hands left hanging on a barb wire fence after an explosion.

There. Now that image can be stuck in your head too.

As far as sex and romance go--because I wouldn't be me if I didn't discuss it--there isn't much. None of the boys have "girls worth fighting for" back home. There is, however, a very touching scene where Paul and a friend admire a poster of girl in a tavern and imagine what they would say to her. Later that day, Paul and his friends encounter three French girls and essentially trade bread and sausage for their, ahem, company. Maybe it is meant to be seen as "prostitution", that the French girls would only sleep with them because they need food, but I don't think this is director Lewis Milestone's intention. Paul & co. need relief and comfort and to be reminded there is something worth living for. And the audience needs a break from the relentless horror.

The few "happy" moments aside, All Quiet..., as a story, as a novel, as a film, has one purpose and one purpose alone and that is to expose the true horrors of war and piss all over the myths of Heroism and Glory that a film like Wings so eagerly tries to present. And piss it does.

Surprise! Surprise! I didn't really like All Quiet... back in '04. If for nothing else but making the 2 hours and 12 minutes pass smoothly, I hoped to like it this time around. Good news, everyone! I did. But I don't think I'll be watching it again any time soon. I thought I'd have more to say on this film, but really, I can't say anything about it that hasn't been said before by someone far more eloquent than I. If nothing else comes out of me watching all the BP's again, at least I have finally found respect for this film.

Impressions circa 2004
Negative. I WAS SOOOOOOOO BOOOOOORRRRRRREEEEEEEEDDDDDDDD!!!!! I liked the stuff with French girls though. P.S. This was another one of my Christmas presents in '04. :-(

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)
  • Best Director - Lewis Milestone 
  • Best Writing 
  • Best Cinematography 

1929-30 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen)
  • The Big House 
  • Disraeli 
  • The Divorcee 
  • The Love Parade 
What I Learned From...All Quiet on the Western Front
War is HELL. Just say no.

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