Friday, October 2, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) ****

Director: Lewis Milestone

Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, William Bakewell

The film was based on the celebrated anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Lewis Milestone had already gained some notoriety for directing the films The Racket and Two Arabian Knights, the latter of which won him an Oscar for Best Comedy Direction.

A group of German schoolboys are convinced by their teacher to enlist in World War I. The story follows one such soldier named Paul (Ayres) and how the war deeply affects him.

Simply put, this is among the greatest films ever made. Milestone does a terrific job in showing the horrors of war, managing to avoid the common hypocrisy found in war films where the action scenes are made to look exciting while at the same time decrying the very action they are showing. The battle scenes here are extremely unpleasant and show the true nature of trench warfare. There's a scene where German troops attack a trench and are picked off by machine gun fire that seems to have inspired Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. However, the two scenes that really stick out to me are when Paul gets a furlough and returns home for a brief stay. He meets a group of civilians who attempt to tell him what needs to be done to win the war, and tell him he just doesn't see the big picture. Later, he goes back to see his old teacher who is giving a lecture to another group of kids, attempting to get them to enlist. When Paul explains the true nature of what the war is like, he is called a coward by the students. These two scenes really resonate because they eerily remind me of the chickenhawks that dominate current foreign policy debates. It's a shame that someone could ever be considered a coward for not wanting to kill people or be killed themselves and that to denounce a war could be considered unpatriotic. It's an incredible tragedy that 79 years later, we apparently haven't learned a damn thing.

All Quiet on the Western Front won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and also received nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. It was named on the first AFI top 100 list, although dropped off of the list in the 2nd edition.

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