Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Release Date: April 21, 1930
Director: Lewis Milestone
Written By: Erich Maria Remarque (by), Maxwell Anderson (adaptation & dialogue), George Abbott (screenplay), Del Andrews (adaptation), C. Gardner Sullivan (supervising story chief), Walter Anthony (titles for silent version), Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray
Genre: Drama, War
Running Time: 136 minutes
Oscar Wins: 2
Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Writing Achievement
Other Best Picture Nominees
-The Big House
-The Love Parade
And the winner is...
It is hard to get an idea of what the Academy could have been like in its infantile stages, especially since their first batch of winners aren't the zeitgeist pieces that the "more important" later ones would be. With the turn of the decade, the Academy entered its third year with both a silent war film and a Broadway musical as its defining winners. They reflected polar opposites of the category's later biases. So what would happen to make the award relevant? For starters, it kicked into high gear with what is not only one of the early best, but also a film that remains as relevant today as it did 85 years ago when it premiered. All Quiet on the Western Front was an anti-war epic that packed importance into the visuals and the dialogue in measures that updated Sergei Eisenstein's style to a new, more sympathetic model. The part that is most interesting? While other Best Picture winners would focus on American or British protagonists, this was a film focusing on a group of German students who go to war. It is a stark contrast considering later events that would sideline the phrase "German soldier" to the antagonist.
However, the film felt like a direct response to Wings. Where the inaugural Best Picture winner opened with the rallying cry to support the army with daring visuals, All Quiet on the Western Front showed a different side. It opened with the title card "This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." The characters enter with that familiar enthusiasm but later denounce others to join. There's a substantial amount of content between these two moments to give the soldiers a good argument. In one of the more powerful scenes, there's an opposing soldier dying. All he wants is a simple life. In that moment, the war becomes human and the people behind the guns become sympathetic and real. There's plenty of moments to retrieve from this film, as Lewis Milestone made a film so powerfully against war that in its German release, Nazis would release stink bombs and rats into theaters to distract audiences. It would later be banned and only re-released after major editing.
One of the more interesting things about the film is that Milestone also wanted to go for accuracy. It was something that few filmmakers wanted to do at the time. Many of the sets were so real that they had to be temporarily shut down so that it could be checked for sanitation. He asked Universal to find German soldiers from World War I to make accurate uniforms. There were so many that they became extras in the film and even helped to drill the actors on mannerisms and linguistics. Its use of showing severed limbs was especially controversial and caused it to be considered the most violent film of its era. Universal, who financed the film shortly after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, felt that the violence was important and decided that it was appropriate to release it as is. There was also no music featured so that audiences weren't distracted from the scenes. A subsequent silent version was being filmed simultaneously, but it wouldn't be released for some time.
Much like the director's name, it was a milestone of sorts. For starters, this was Milestone's first talkie as a director. It also featured future Best Picture winning directors including George Cuckor (My Fair Lady) as a dialogue coach, Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) in his first acting role - of which he was fired for impudence. All Quiet on the Western Front also did an impressive feat the Oscars by being the first at a few things. It was the first talkie war film. It was the first film released by Universal to achieve this status. It was the first film to win both Best Picture and Best Director - a trend that would become more common in the decades following. Milestone became the first person to win two Oscars, winning Best Director for Two Arabian Knights (1928) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
Much like the Oscars early on, the film didn't have nearly as much reverential treatment immediately. The film was edited for various reasons. Milestone eventually got his wish 20 years later when it received a massive alteration to fit the original film including with the proper sound. The film's legacy can be felt in other films that were released in subsequent years as it served for the template of the anti-war propaganda film. Directors like William Wyler would go on to use its style as the influence for World War II films Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, where he took the visual cues of terror and applied it to a more centralized focus on the citizens facing conflict during the war. Even Zinnemann would make his own war film with From Here to Eternity in which the bombing of Pearl Harbor is wrapped around a touching love story. It may be one of the few World War I films to have as much reverence as its World War II counterparts thankfully to its actions.
It makes sense why this happened. It was a film that proved that the medium could be more visceral than simple entertainment. Much like D.W. Griffiths before him, Milestone sought to make the journey of film into an adventure that was exploitative, but also investing and personal. Beyond the violence and the occasional badgering of its anti-war themes, it was a film that still connects largely because it feels authentic and true to the moment. It puts audiences in a situation that they otherwise would never be able to have. The fact that it was banned in several nations also indicates that it spoke volumes to concurrent themes of life and war. It was upsetting because it was real. It proved that the Academy could reward important films. It proved that war was a lot more complicated than the flying adventures of Wings (which itself was an enjoyable movie).
Milestone was a charismatic director who didn't pin himself to one genre. His follow up, The Front Page (1931), was a screwball comedy. However, his influence in the war film genre was far from over. He would continue to make gritty realistic dramas that would provoke audiences and lead to many conflicting opinions. Pork Chop Hill (1959) was his last major war film starring Gregory Peck and focused on the Korean War. While he wouldn't be back in the Best Picture winners circle, his influence has remained consistent thanks to ruthless dedication to accuracy to make war not only look real, but feel real. For all of its violence and controversy, it is impressive that this film still continues to provoke and cause visceral reactions all these decades later. Many more accessible anti-war films may have come along since, but none have quite the impact that All Quiet on the Western Front does.