All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 epic war film directed by Lewis Milestone and stars Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, and Ben Alexander. The film is based off the book of the same name by author Erich Maria Remarque.
The film begins with a group of young schoolboys who, after hearing a passionate speech from a professor, decide to enlist in the German Army. Their enthusiasm and patriotism starts to wane as they become first-hand witnesses to the carnage and horror of World War I. Standing out among the boys is Paul Baumer (Ayres), whose inner conflict in dealing with the harsh realities of the war becomes the film's focus later on.
Character names and faces are of little to no importance in All Quiet on the Western Front. Consider yourself lucky if you're even able to catch enough character names while watching. The film's central focus is meant to be a display of the brutal reality of war, and the physical and psychological effects it can have on the men who dare to engage in combat. However, the film contradicts itself with its focus shifting to that of Lew Ayres character in the second half. The attention turns from the nightmare-inducing hardships of the war itself to the hardships upon one soldier. It's confusing because Ayres does not present himself as the main character in the first hour of the film.
- The brutal war scenes. All Quiet on the Western Front is at its best during its battle scenes and when the soldiers are struggling to survive. Men are constantly getting shot and blasted by bombs/mortars. One soldier loses an eye and cries out in agony. Another loses one of his feet and bemoans how he no longer knows the feeling he once had from wiggling his toes. Another shot shows enemy soldiers being riddled with machine gun fire, falling one by one like dominoes. Even though we have a difficult time applying names and personalities to many of these soldiers, their suffering is heartfelt and support the film's notion of war's destructive nature.
- Lew Ayres' takeover of the film. As described above, the film shifts its focal point to the character of Paul Baumer midway through. Because of this, the battle scenes become more single-minded and the themes are strictly applied to this one character. There is a long scene involving Ayres being stuck in a hole with a French soldier that he fatally stabbed. Ayres tries to plead with the dead body to speak, as we also see him slowly stare at his surroundings, with the sound of gunfire and explosions in the background. At this point, none of the other schoolboys are spoken of again, and several other characters we had seen frequently engaged in battle are now playing second-fiddle to Ayres. It's as if the film took the first hour to explain and show the horrors of World War I, and then spend the rest of the time applying them and seeing how they affect one character. If the film is strictly trying to show us how horrible everything was on the battlefield in World War I, Ayres extended screen time is not necessary.
Detailed characters and story are not of the utmost importance in All Quiet on the Western Front. Instead, the film provides for an engaging tale of what is really at the heart of war, and the nightmares that are witnessed only by those who see them first-hand. Sadly, this tale loses merit when Lew Ayres becomes the sole victim to the war's brutality. If All Quiet on the Western Front stayed the course it was on during the first hour, it could very well be seen today as the defining motion picture of war.
Recommend? Only if you have some spare time. The movie, though, has little to no replay value.
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