For the first act or so of All Quiet on the Western Front, director Milestone very gently puts the viewer amid the naïveté of the film’s protagonists, a group of students who drop out to enlist (in the first World War). He opens with this gorgeously complicated shot–brilliantly edited by Edgar Adams and shot by Arthur Edeson–coming into the classroom from a parade of soldiers on the street. There’s a fantastical grand element to Milestone’s composition in that first act, just like the new recruits think they are beginning a grand adventure.
All Quiet on the Western Front moves very quickly. It runs around 130 minutes, but Milestone fades between vignettes. Lew Ayres is the protagonist, but he’s the protagonist because the war removes other potential protagonists. It only really becomes his film in the last quarter of the picture. But it’s not Ayres’s character’s story. Milestone and the screenwriters–Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews–do a brilliant job of positioning all the characters in relation to one another. They understand the story better than the viewer does. The viewer is simply watching.
This approach–and excellent direction from Milestone and fantastic acting all around (Louis Wolheim, William Bakewell and John Wray stand out)–leads to Quiet being able to be utterly devastating but never exhausting; never exciting but always riveting. Milestone matches his attention to the battle scenes, often singularly good, with his attention to the character scenes.
All Quiet is a particularly amazing motion picture.
Directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott and Del Andrews, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Edgar Adams; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Louis Wolheim (Kat), Lew Ayres (Paul), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jr. (Peter), Walter Rogers (Behn), William Bakewell (Albert), Russell Gleason (Mueller), Richard Alexander (Westhus), Harold Goodwin (Detering), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), G. Pat Collins (Bertinck), Beryl Mercer (Paul’s Mother) and Edmund Breese (Herr Meyer).