All Quiet on the Western Front
"If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother."
How much leeway do you give a film for being "of their time"? All Quiet on the Western Front, is badly dated. It plays like a bridging film between the silent era and talkies. Bits that are light on words, namely the large-scale battle sequences, are still pretty impressive, but much of the dialogue suffers from rigor mortis and characters have less dimension than the cover of the book it was based on. I've seen films that were great for their time and films like Sunrise which are as great to day as they ever were. This one is neither.
There are great scenes, or at least ideas for scenes that make me believe the book is still extraordinary. First of all, making the Germans the lead army is a masterful idea, completely annihilating the nationalism and driving home the main theme of brothers under different flags. There's a nice moment in the beginning where we see our young leads being convinced by their elders (a teacher) that they should enlist. It contrasts nicely with a moment later when they meet their drill sergeant on the battlefield and show him all manner of disrespect. But then we get a scene even later when one of the soldiers returns to the teacher. The emotional point has already been hammered in, and now we're pounding the nail through the wall. It's as bad as the worst Oliver Stone moment. Scenes like these, and all manner of episodes from the dead Frenchman in the foxhole to the French girls, they're all great ideas for scenes, but their cinematic execution is stiff.
So the high points come from the action, watching the brave young soldiers break down under the constant bombardment. I especially liked the unceremonious presentation of death. With everything else being dated, I expected lots of last words and "tell my wife I love her". But many of our characters just go down and the camera moves past them, forgetting them in an instant. The camerawork in these scenes was surprisingly fluid, with lots of nice tracking shots. As the film wore on I became increasingly tired of the heavy-handed morality.RATING: * 1/2