Passed, despite being super bleak for 1930. The movie stresses the horrors of war from the perspective of the German army (Important Note: Not the Nazis. This is the Great War, not World War II). There is some mild nudity. The movie also really talks about suicide in a very matter-of-fact way. But the tone seems oddly at odds with this content. I'll talk about this as I blog. Passed.
DIRECTOR: Lewis Milestone
It's summer. Like, this where writing gets weird. I don't know how my schedule is going to look like from day-to-day. But I've also decided that I'm just going to write as I finish films. Don't worry. I'm already two films deep. If the world follows the schedule I want it to, I will probably write about Predator 2 tomorrow. But this is a movie that I started showing my seniors before they graduated until I realized that no one was really watching it. We read it before this point and I wanted them to see an adaptation about it. Yeah, that might have been a tall order, especially before they graduated. So I finished it myself.
All Quiet on the Western Front, especially this version, is considered a Hollywood classic. The first time I watched this movie, I thought it was one of the better war movies I had seen. I mean, I had "read" All Quiet on the Western Front (translation: audiobooked it) before that point. But I didn't watch the movie immediately after reading the novel. And when I did that, boy, did I make a mistake. I never want to devolve this blog into a book-versus-the-movie discussion, but rarely have I seen a case where a movie says all the right things, but doesn't believe the things it is saying. The 1930 film of this movie fundamentally covers so much of the novel. Appropriately, the most memorable shot, the final shot of the film with the butterfly, is a lot more of the director's interpretation, different from the book.
But the book and the movie are drastically different beasts. Part of me can define it clearly: Hollywood wasn't ready to alienate an audience with a tone that was so downbeat, despite the content of the story. This can range from a number of things, from cinematography to acting styles. War films, with a message or not, have a certain feel to them pre-1960. You know what I'm talking about. Actors all have the trans-Atlantic accent. There's a cadence to it. Films have that proscenium arch style of staging, mirroring stage plays. It's why newer films that are monochromatic don't necessarily feel old. There's a million little things that cause older films bleed together. Now, it sounds like I'm really coming down on old films. Au contraire because this guy loves old movies. But I also know that there is a certain riskiness that Hollywood wasn't really attempting at the time. Movies were still fundamentally entertainment. What artistry there was to a film was often the slave to both novelty and the finances of the studio. But when you read All Quiet on the Western Front, it is a counter-culture tale of misery and sadness. It bemoans the nature of war. While the film says that it bemoans the existence of war, there's still something oddly patriotic about the whole thing. I kind of left the movie thinking that war sucked, but was ultimately necessary. That's not the book message at all.
And I'm definitely toeing my opinion into something that's been talked about at length. Maybe...just maybe...some books don't need to be movies. One fundamental thing about the book is that there really isn't a plot to the book. It's really just a series of vignettes where Paul, avatar for the author, goes through episodic moments in war and gives his perspective on them. From a character building perspective, we see Paul growing up and realizing how naïve his initial impressions of war were. There are a lot of references to pooping and the book moves on. There's really no throughline. The only reason that we can say that the book progresses is because more of the characters keep on dying. But the movie does these cosmetic changes that almost imply that there's a story through the movie. Yeah, it's the book. But certain things take place in different order. It seems goofy to dwell on the order of the film, but it does do something that once again brings solace to the audience. Paul's changes towards his attitude happen gradually. We see a child make small changes throughout the events to a point of ultimately becoming overwhelmed by despair. But the movie wants to juxtapose Paul's naiveté with his transition into disenfranchisement. It's very clean cut.
And it's not like the movie doesn't show bleak moments. There are a lot of scenes that are just downright depressing. But it is because of the entertainment value that the movie kind of loses the sense of verisimilitude that the book offers. Erich Maria Remarque seems to basically be telling his own story through the eyes of Paul. He doesn't make it a memoir because it doesn't go beat for beat. Instead, it has moments truncated and condensed for the sake of experience. But the movie really treats the whole thing linearly...
So I guess I did do one of those "Man, the book was better." But as much of a classic as this movie is, I kind of feel like it's just a square peg / round hole situation. It tells everything that the book wanted to tell, but the tone is just wildly inappropriate and false for such a bleak story. Maybe it shouldn't be American. Maybe we should have waited for grittier storytelling, despite the fact that the filmmakers obviously couldn't foresee where cinema was going. Regardless, it actually felt like a weaker version of what I wanted to see than I got.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.