Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
It is sort of odd when you consider that within the first three years, the Academy voters would select two films about World War I and those two films, in their depiction of the war, would be as different as night and day. Watching Wings in such proximity to All Quiet on the Western Front is a strange experience. The former is a flag-waving Hollywood epic and the other is a brutal and unrelenting indictment of the realities of “The Great War” that renders a movie like Wings almost an insult.
All Quiet on the Western Front is devoid of subtleties. This is a movie that is so angry in its message and so mesmerizing in its depiction of the horror of “The Great War” that it is sometimes inconceivable that it was made in 1929. Here is a film that has such a knowing hindsight about the realities of trench warfare that you can scarcely believe that it happened in the 20th century. In its own way, All Quiet on the Western Front gives us the most impactful element of the movies, the manner in which we as moviegoers can be placed on the front lines. Plus, it can render a verdict on those elements that aren’t always presented in words.
The soldiers in the film are Germans but they could have come from almost any country. The point is made that every war is the same, good people die, bad people die, that war is the same thing over and over and the only thing that changes are the uniforms. The fascinating thing about All Quiet on the Western Front is that while it is seen from the German’s point of view, the characters have a variety of accents. They are meant to represent the idea that all sides fight the war with the same outcome of disillusionment and heartache.
Sixty countries experienced what goes in this film: Young naive boys with wonder in their eyes listened to patriotic speeches in which war was presented as a glorious adventure; that doing one’s duty was simply a matter of putting on a beautiful uniform and riding into battle on horseback with a saber flashing in the sun. But we know the reality. We know that the First World War was a contest of endurance, that it was pointless and bloody and that it was a constant unceasing stalemate that never moved in either direction. We know the degradation of humanity and the waste of millions and millions of lives for a cause that meant basically nothing.
I’ve seen All Quiet on the Western Front at least three times in my life and I am still amazed that a movie nearly 90 year-old movie can have this kind of impact on me. It is unrelenting in its message and mesmerizing in its depictions of warfare – none of which are the least bit glorified. The movie had such an impact that one reporter writing for Variety noted: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy 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.”