A harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness that Universal’s “Western Front” becomes at once a money picture. For this is a war and what Shermann said goes double here.
Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women. Here exhibited is a war as it is, butchery.
And when the German boy, Back to the school which he left as a youthful scholar, as a hardened war veteran after three years’ fighting the French at the front, said to those young boys raring to go where he had been, that “war is dirty, it is death,” and the glory- to hell with the glory of country along with it, or something like that, no one in the audience could help but endorse that sentiment, for those before the screen had endured with the German soldiers all of their horrors, frights, amputations, privations and deaths.
It is this very thing in a very great talking picture that will draw the business and money to “All Quiet On the Western Front.” If, as they say, all of this was also in the book, then it is understandable why a story of this worst side of war did become the best seller.
Acknowledging the unbounded credit that must go to Lewis Milestone for the superb direction of a most difficult subject all the way through, there is behind all of this Universal picture, something else again. It’s quite true that U has turned out a talker picture that may live forever as a picture of the four-year war, and did so commercially, but to whom is due the rose for daring to make such a picture as this, with that commercialism in mind? If that person were young Carl Laemmle, who produced this film, then the kid is there with nerve, for he has done on that nerve perhaps something no other producer in the film industry would have cared or dared to chance.
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Driving men and boys to their certain finish before those murderous machine guns, dodging all kinds of killing missles from the air, living with the rats, starving while fighting, forgetting country and home, just becoming a fight machine on a routine, and probably shell-shocked into future oblivion if surviving all of these war years; that’s the story and the picture you hear and see in “Western Front.”
It’s so real that despite the inner intent of the elder Laemmle to present a picture of the Germans in war, Universal has turned ou a stern object lesson against war.
As Louis Wolheim said in his character:
“At the next war let all the Kaisers, Presidents, Generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out amongst themselves. That will satisfy us and keep us at home.”
Or when Slim Summerville, likewise in character, of course, stated:
“Me and the Kaiser; we are both fighting, with the only difference the Kaiser isn’t here.”
Mr. Milestone left out nothing. Three or four deaths in sight of the audience; two hospital scenes; suggested amputations of legs so suggestively forced you can almost see them cut off; deaths by that war butchery on the field and a death by stabbing in the trenches, including the ghastly sight of a pair of bare hands only, for but a flash, hanging onto a barbwire fence.
And the shells come hurling over, the incessant noise, louder and hotter now and again, but always there; always war, and that running explosion of a ground set of torpedoes that blew everybody and everything to bits as it progressed. It’s all here and it’s all war.
Hard to throw comedy into the greatest tragedy the world has known or in this, the biggest and strongest drama ever screened, but they get it in, mostly through Slim Summerville as a hard boiled veteran, and another, the male lead role played by Wolheim.
Or again when three German soldiers swim, naked, across the river to the French shore, carrying bread and sausages to three French farm girls on the other side, and or of that other scene in the silhouette, of a bedroom shadowed on the wall with a bowl and pitcher on a table, and one of the German soldiers heard saying to a French girl, heard but not seen; “You are not like the other girls I have met,” and then the three German soldiers leaving the French home, after they come downstairs. That may be funny in Germany, but you can bet all of the hot dogs ever cooked it will never be shown in France.
And what a war picture, without an English or American soldier in it? And the best war picture ever filmed. Which is “Western Front.” Because it’s the real war, whether made in Hollywood or in what was the Western Front of the supreme holocaust.
This story in brief and taking in all that it does thereby, carries a group of school boys, enthused by their professor’s plea for fealty to country, from their training days through welfare to their deaths. According to this tale none of those German boys who broke up school one day to enlist ever returned, except one. And when that one went back, the old men of his home town were fighting over a map as to the best way for the Germans to reach Paris, and the professor was once again harranguing his scholars somewhat younger this time, not over 16, to fight for their Kaiser and country. This latter is one of the best scenes, without the air noise, that of the returned soldier permitting his real feelings about war to spill over, to be called a coward by those schoolroom boys who heard him tell the truth, but were just as eager to go as he had been three years before.
The returned soldier, tiring quickly of the false impression at home of the war, fighting and the front, went back to fight some more, and met his death from a French bullet as he was about to feed a little bird on the trunk of a tree. It ended the picture quietly and killingly, as that was war, too.
Every male in the world, from 14 years, up, should see this picture. Women will go in the main, although all may not, through the gruesomeness. Women like to cry and there’s plenty of cries in this, besides the thrills and also the knowledge of war that has and will be.
In performance one might say it’s due to Mr. Milestone’s direction and let it go at that. But there are standout performances, even in bits. Mr. Wolheim leads, closely seconded by Mr. Summerville, for those two must make them laugh as well, and they do; then John Wray in his fine character drawing of Himmelstoss, the post man who became sergeant and put the former pupils over the ropes as soldiers in training, with a laugh out of this when they turned the tables on the trainer. Raymond Griffith is the Frenchman stabbed and who died in the trench. He didn’t have to talk for Griffith died as no one else has on the screen; Russell Gleason who made a short story out of a pair of boots; Lewis Ayres as a heroic youthful soldier figure; Beryl Mercer who seemed as uncertain mother as she welcomed her boy home, and the Sisters of Mercy, the nurses and the doctors of the hospitals.
Production and photography in keeping with the direction, which tells much briefly, while recording and projection at the Central the opening night without a blemish.
“All Quiet On the Western Front” cost Universal $1,200,000. The League of Nations could make no better investment than to but the master print, reproduce it in every language for every nation to be shown every year until the word War shall have been taken out of the dictionaries.
1929/1930: Outstanding Production (Universal), Directing (Lewis Milestone)
Nominations: Cinematography, Writing