All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front was a Best Picture Oscar winner (and Best Director winner for Lewis Milestone as well) way back in 1930. The version I saw was a restoration with sound effects, but no heard dialogue. In spite of its age and its status as a black-and-white silent film, it still stands as one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, and it’s as touching and powerful as any film made since. At two and a quarter hours, it’s also one of the longer films of its time.
The film defines “epic,” and ranks up there with Lawrence of Arabia and the three Lord of the Rings films as a film of great scope that can also carry an intimate storyline. The setting is World War One, and the film is told from the perspective of young and innocent German soldiers. The “enemy” here is the French, though the point is not pressed that hard. The leads are not so much German as simply young, and the enemy isn’t the French and British so much as war itself and its warmongers. The message could hardly be fresher.
The film has an unusual plot line and structure. There are a great many battle scenes, and there is a focus on a few young men until the film finally focuses on just one—an unusual approach for any film. Lew Ayres has the lead, and it’s a treat to follow his journey from a callow youth to a still-sensitive young man hardened by war. Ayres is pretty much forgotten today, though he had a career extending into the 1990’s, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 1948’s Johnny Belinda. Director Milestone was famous for his breathtaking tracking shots, which are used to great effect here. But he also was (apparently) influenced by Russian rapid cutting, especially with faces, which he used more extensively in his sound films—most obviously with his next film, The Front Page.
For anyone interested in war films, anti-war films, or film epics, this needs to go on the list of must-sees. I won’t give anything away, but prepare to be surprised by the visual sophistication and emotionally touched by several scenes.
A Night to Remember (1958)
This one wasn’t high on my list to see, but I was familiar with it as a British film about the Titanic. After the early sound era’s Atlantic, the film I was most familiar with was 1953’s Titanic, which centered on a married couple’s issues as much as the sinking of the ship. It always struck me as odd that the 1950’s had two high-budget Titanic films. But the British film may well be the best film of all time on the sinking. (And yes, I’m thinking of the Cameron film when I write this).
For one, its British perspective is less dramatic and melodramatic than the other Titanic films, and there is a spirit of “Carry on” and the stiff upper lip that adds to the power of the events. There is a central character played by Kenneth More, the most popular actor of his time, who more or less carries us through the film, but there is none of the focus on a character or couple that many filmmakers deem necessary to hook the interest of the audience. Here, the focus is on several characters and couples, yet mostly on the inexorable actions and inactions that led to the sinking.
The film is surprisingly suspenseful, considering the viewer’s supposed knowledge of what ultimately transpires. The maddening behavior of the crew of the Californian forms a significant part of that suspense, and anger. The special effects are surprising, too, though seen through today’s eyes seem quaint. But considering the times, the effects are excellent.
The strongest attribute, however, is its stunning photography. British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Oscars for 1972’s Cabaret and 1979’s Tess) was one of the greatest of all time. The look here is luscious, deep-focus work, and is rather crisp and nearly documentary-like at times. His work is occasionally too beautiful for the film’s workaday approach to the story, but it elevates the film into a work of art as well as a serious retelling of the tragedy. Similar to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), we see a great many tilted images, but here the tilt is not from the camera, but from the ever-changing and ever-tilting set that reflects the actual slow sinking of the ship.
This is a film of great production values that still keeps its focus on the ship itself and the series of events that led to its end. It keeps its frustrations and terrible losses under its cool and lovely surface, and in the process, allows the human factor to rise to the surface more naturally. For a film that doesn’t major in melodrama, the film has the most touching moment of any I’ve seen in a Titanic film. Clearly, less is often more.