All Quiet on the Western Front lobby card set image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
Director Lewis Milestone and Universal Pictures brought All Quiet on the Western Front to movie theaters in 1930. Lew Ayres plays the young German recruit with Louis Wolheim as the grizzled old veteran.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by German writer Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970). Drafted into the German Army at age 18, Remarque saw action in World War I where he was wounded several times.
Within a year of publication, All Quiet on the Western Front became a huge international bestseller, translated into 28 languages with nearly four million copies sold. Remarque followed his bestseller with The Road Back (1931), another novel of the Great War that dealt with Germany’s collapse in 1918.
The film rights to All Quiet on the Western Front were quickly purchased by Carl Laemmle and Universal Pictures. Laemmle had placed his son, Carl Jr., in charge of Universal’s production in 1929 when the latter had turned 21. One of Junior’s first moves was to initiate a policy placing greater emphasis on the production of higher quality pictures. Out of that new policy came the early sound classic All Quiet on the Western Front.
Lewis Milestone Directs All Quiet on the Western Front
Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott and Del Andrews wrote the screenplay for Universal Pictures. Lewis Milestone (The Front Page, The North Star, Halls of Montezuma) directed, with Arthur Edeson and Karl Freund serving as cinematographers.
Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), Louis Wolheim (Kat Katczinsky) and John Wray (Himmelstoss) head the cast. Other players include Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jr. (Peter), Walter Rogers (Behn), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp), Russell Gleason (Mueller), Richard Alexander (Westhus), Harold Goodwin (Detering), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), Pat Collins (Lt. Bertinck), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Baumer), Edmund Breese (Herr Meyer), Raymond Griffith (Gerard Duval) and Bodil Rosing (Mother of Hospital Patient).
All Quiet on the Western Front Filmed in California
Budgeted at a then staggering $1.25 million, All Quiet on the Western Front was filmed from November 1929 to March 1930. Most of the war scenes were shot at the Irvine Ranch in Laguna Beach, California, on 20 acres of real estate realistically converted into World War I battlefields.
Director Lewis Milestone, a U.S. Army veteran of World War I who had served with the Signal Corps, was able to locate a number of German Army veterans living in the Los Angeles area. He hired many of them to authenticate German military uniforms and equipment, drill the extras and appear on camera as German officers. Also employed were more than 2,000 American ex-servicemen, who were used to great effect in the battle sequences.
All Quiet on the Western Front: World War I, Germany and Trench Warfare
All Quiet on the Western Front opens in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, where soldiers can be seen parading down the street. A postman delivering the mail informs a patron that he is in the Reserves and is being called up for active duy in the Great War.
Professor Kantorek is lecturing his impressionable students on their duty to the Fatherland, calling them “the iron men of Germany” and urging them to enlist in the army now. Many of the boys heed the stern professor’s call, marching down to the recruiting office with visions of glory and romance filling their heads.
Himmelstoss – the mailman in civilian life – turns out to be the boys’ hated training sergeant, drilling them in the mud and turning them into soldiers. With their training complete, the new recruits are trucked to the front, where they encounter the horrors of trench warfare.
During one engagement with French troops, the fighting regresses into brutal hand-to-hand combat in a deadly battle of bayonets, rifle butts and fists. Eventually, out of the 150 men in their original company, only 80 remain on active duty, with the rest either dead or in military hospitals.
One of the soldiers, Paul Baumer, goes home on leave, where he is feted as a brave German soldier and told to “give the Frenchies a good licking.” Paul, who had previously been treated for his wounds during a stay at a Catholic hospital, later returns to his old unit, only to discover that most of his friends are now gone. Back in the trenches with the old veteran Kat, Paul is killed by a French sniper, with only his hand shown as the life quickly drains from his body.
The movie ends with a panoramic shot of rows of white crosses and the superimposed images of Paul and his young friends marching off to war. The End title resembles a dangling Iron Cross, one of Germany’s most coveted war decorations.
All Quiet on the Western Front Opens in New York City
All Quiet on the Western Front opened at New York City’s Central Theatre on April 29, 1930.
“From the pages of Erich Maria Remarque’s widely read book of young Germany in the World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures Corporation has produced a trenchant and imaginative audible picture…It is a notable achievement, sincere and earnest, with glimpses that are vivid and graphic,” reported Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times (4/30/30).
All Quiet on the Western Front Box Office, Oscar Nominations, Notes, DVD
- All Quiet on the Western Front grossed over $3 million at the American box office.
- Academy Award nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director (won), Best Cinematography, Best Writing.
- The film generated a great deal of controversy, both in the United States and abroad. Poland, for some inexplicable reason, banned the movie, branding it as “pro-German.” In Germany, the Nazis called it “anti-German,” with storm troopers engaging in various forms of cinematic terrorism, which included throwing rocks through projection screens, tossing stink bombs into theaters and releasing mice and snakes in order to panic moviegoers.
- Major Frank Pease, head of the Hollywood Technical Directors Institute, tried to have the movie banned in the United States, calling it “propaganda” and claiming that it would “undermine belief in the Army and in authority.”
- Most memorable scene: Paul knifes a French soldier, offering the mortally wounded man water and asking for his forgiveness. After the soldier dies, Paul goes through his papers and discovers that his name was Gerard Duval, and that he had a wife and young daughter.
- Memorable line: “My eyes! I’m blind! I can’t see!” a terrified Behn screams after a bombardment, wandering out into the open where he is machine-gunned by the enemy.
- At the New York City premiere, the curtain was lowered during the intermission, revealing row on row of poppies, a grim reminder of the slaughter that had been the Great War.
- One sequel: The Road Back (1937) starring John King, Richard Cromwell and Slim Summerville.
- The $6 million TV remake: Hallmark Hall of Fame’s All Quiet on the Western Front starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine, telecast over CBS on November 14, 1979.
- On DVD: 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 2007).
“We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed. Sometimes we are. That’s all,” Paul tells a classroom of students.
All Quiet on the Western Front, still a powerful film after nearly 80 years…