Dulce et decorum est…

05/23/2012 4:00 AM |

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Directed by Lewis Milestone

In his delightfully cranky 1991 volume BAD or The Dumbing of America, World War II soldier Paul Fussell wrote of veterans’ disdain for war movies, noting fellow servicemen “were especially contemptuous of those in which artillery and mortar shells went whooosssh when they went off with big showy gouts of oil-produced flame instead of the authentic (but nonvisual) deafening ” A silent version of 1930’s All Quiet On The Western Front was shot simultaneously, but audio is essential for the still-deafening sound of mortar shells whistling through the air. The film easily passes the Fussell Verisimilitude Test.

Raleigh Trevelyan noted of the fighting at Anzio in 1944 that “it was a complete All Quiet on the Western Front film set once more.” Lewis Milestone’s World War I combat scenes are still similarly convincing. Images stand out from the totally immersive carnage: amazingly fast left-to-right tracking shots zoom through the trenches, recording machine guns mowing down soldiers by the dozen; bodies falling into a crater that’s immediately blasted into oblivion; a pair of hands cling to a fence without any attaching arms, glimpsed for a terrified, too-much-to-take-in fraction of a second. That last shot would’ve been impossible in a Hollywood film made even a few years later, and another moment’s equally, shockingly candid, when a soldier soils himself in fright his first night at the front. “When we come back, I’ll buy you all some nice, clean underwear,” cracks gruff Sgt. Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim).

As an anti-war film, Western Front superficially follows the same mold as the WWII propaganda films that would follow: a platoon of lightly individuated youth is whipped into shape by a martinet of a drill sergeant, then bond under cranky-but-caring Kat’s tutelage. The drill sergeant is village postmaster Himmelstoss (John Wray), who takes advantage of his position of authority to force his charges to flop down into the mud repeatedly under the guise of preparing them for battlefield action. Under his care, young men who look like bluff American fraternity brothers turn into German-singing robots, crude but effective shorthand for dehumanization. Himmelstoss is, predictably, a coward in battle, his Prussian mustaches wilting on the field.

It’s not surprising that Front‘s German release was quickly ended by the Nazis. At the first screening open to the public, Joseph Goebbels arrived with some 300 reinforcements. The audience jeered “German soldiers had courage. It’s a disgrace that such an insulting film was made in America!” When such disturbances interrupted the screening, Goebbels stood up and denounced the film as “an attempt to destroy Germany’s image.” (In an amazing display of what can only be deemed chutzpah, the Nazis unleashed stink bombs and brought the screening to an end, then asked for refunds.)

Aside from Nazi denunciations of “the Jewish film of shame,” a student association at the University of Berlin condemned the film’s “mockery of the sense of sacrifice.” Both as Erich Maria Remarque’s original novel and as a film, Front surely deserves a large degree of credit for dealing serious blows to the reflexive valorization of dying for one’s country that had been repeated less and less eloquently since Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country). Such anti-jingoistic sentiments would have to be laid aside during World War II, but Front‘s remarkable technical achievements helped pound home a message that’s considerably weaker in verbal form.

Battle scenes aside, the depictions of the alternating boredom and hysteria of trench life still convince, even if one of the privates’ yelps of fear sound distractingly like The Three Stooges going “yip yip yip.” The opening remains astonishing: as soldiers return home, marching through the streets, Milestone cranes up and backwards, entering a classroom where a professor exhorts his students to enlist. The sheer scale and slow majesty of the shot could credibly belong to Visconti or Bertolucci. Later dramatic infelicities (the caricatured crudity of complacent home life, general speechifying on The Horror Of It All) fade from mind quickly; Front remains a must-see for its harrowing combat scenes and endlessly stunning visuals, on and off the field of battle.

Opens May 25 at Film Forum