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Tomorrow in the theater: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

By Jean Cannon

Tomorrow, May 15, the Ransom Center will screen All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the second film of the World War I Film Series, held in conjunction with the current exhibition, The World at War, 1914–1918. The film will be shown in the Ransom Center’s theater at 7 p.m.

 

All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 bestselling novel, tells the story of Paul Baümer, a young German soldier who—under tremendous pressure from his war-enthused village—enlists in the German Army and serves on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he suffers the demoralizing conditions of trench warfare and is wounded in battle. Remarque’s novel is often cited as a landmark in the history of post-WWI disillusionment; its success caused the book market to be flooded with war memoirs and novels written by veterans, many of whom expressed anger and resentment toward former military leaders and insensitive civilians. The 1930 film adaptation of the story was every bit as controversial as the book—which was censored and banned both for its “filth” and its anti-war sentiment. The production and reception history of the film quickly established it as one of the most far-reaching and provocative movies ever made about the experiences of men in battle.

 

Though the public controversy surrounding Remarque’s book certainly made for a precarious film adaptation project, the international success of the novel prompted Universal Pictures to buy the production rights on Armistice Day in 1929. Though many at Universal feared that Remarque’s bleak story of war and its horrors would not appeal to audiences a decade after the war’s end, Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, himself a committed pacifist, insisted on the creation of the film. After much in-house dithering, Universal selected Lewis Milestone, a Russian-born immigrant who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1919, to direct the film. Milestone had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the First World War, where he had produced army film footage. The original screenplay was edited by a team that included Maxwell Anderson, the author of the WWI stage play What Price Glory?, which had been released as a silent film in 1924 and would later be remade under the direction of John Huston in 1952. Future famed director George Cukor, in his first Hollywood job, was the uncredited dialog director of All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

Milestone and his team had grave difficulty deciding on the cast; more than 200 screen tests were given to a wide variety of actors and actresses. Milestone had the most trouble choosing an actor to play Paul Baümer: should the lead be a known star or an unknown talent, presenting the “everyman” aspect of an infantry soldier? Milestone considered Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Johnny Harron, and even Erich Maria Remarque himself before settling on the virtually unknown Lew Ayres, whom he came across while looking at screen tests Cukor had discarded.

 

The role of Paul Baümer would become definitive in Ayres’s life and career. While working on the film, Ayres became a dedicated pacifist; years later, when the draft was introduced for World War II, Ayres announced himself a conscientious objector.  His decision provoked the ire of Hollywood, and Ayres was blacklisted by many Hollywood producers during wartime.

 

Milestone was dedicated to creating realistic battle scenes for the film: Universal dramatically exceeded its budget on the movie—in all spending nearly $1.5 million on the film, four times more than its initial projection. Milestone created a large-scale reconstruction of a First World War battlefield in Balboa, California, complete with trenches, barbed wire, and a No Man’s Land. A special crane was imported for the camera, and authentic uniforms were imported from France and Germany. Ex-German Army officers were hired to drill the actors.

 

The elaborate sets and nuanced acting of the film brought wide acclaim in America and Britain when it was released in 1930: Variety called it a “harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness. . . .Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women.” The film won the year’s Academy Awards both for best film and best direction.

 

Such accolades did not extend across Europe, however, where many countries objected to the film for its blatant anti-militarist stance, its graphic nature, and its depiction of the former Central Powers. The film was banned in Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. It incited angry demonstrations in Austria. France did not ban the film but censored a scene in which German soldiers spend the night with French women of questionable morals.

 

As may be expected, the film received the most incendiary reactions in Germany. Though Universal prepared a specially dubbed version of the film, edited by Remarque himself (who cut many of the more overt depictions of German militarism), it caused riots in German theaters.  Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced the film, and the leading Nazi newspaper called it “a Jewish lie.” Five days after premiering in Berlin, All Quiet on the Western Front was suppressed by Germany’s Supreme Film Censorship Board. Reels of the film, as well as copies of the book, were publicly burned.

 

Only after several decades would All Quiet appear in full in Germany. In 1984, a dubbed reconstruction of the original cut of the film was broadcast on television in West Germany for the first time and to great success. Nearly 11 million viewers watched the film. The restoration of the film for public view embraced an irony appropriate for a story that criticizes bureaucracy and high command: one of the prints used for the restoration had come from the private collection of noted cinephile and censor Joseph Goebbels, who in the 1930s had burned as many reels of the film as he could, save for his own.

 

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