All Quiet on the Western Front, first American edition
First American edition

All Quiet on the Western Front

Novel, 1929
approx. 67,000 words
On Greatest lists
All Quiet scene

Lew Ayres, left, stars as the disillusioned soldier in the classic 1930 film of All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front


Great films for the Great War

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Director Lewis Milestone; writer Maxwell Anderson; featuring Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander

The novel acclaimed as one of the greatest anti-war books ever published is sure to have been adapted for several movies. In fact, it's surprising more adaptations have not been made over the past century—though, to be fair, the book's somewhat depressing outlook might not be thought crowd-pleasing material.

Three film versions have been made of All Quiet on the Western Front. The two you are most likely to find are the 1930 black-and-white classic and the 1979 made-for-TV movie. Both are pretty good.

Which is quite an achievement, given the requirement that movies entertain the masses.

Classic anti-war film

All Quiet pic

Making friends in the trenches

One of the two productions of All Quiet on the Western Front is even considered great. The 1930 film won wide acclaim for its anti-war portrayal of the First World War, as well as Academy Awards for best film and director.

It also caused great controversy, perhaps being the only film both boycotted by the American Legion and banned by the German Nazis.

It's often called the greatest war film ever made.

However, this may be hard to understand though when you watch the actual film. Critics may be unduly influenced by its historical significance as the first important war film to be made after the talkies were introduced. By today's standards the movie does not hold up nearly as well as the book. It's melodramatic, badly paced and overacted.

This is not to put down director Lewis Milestone or Lew Ayres as the disillusioned German soldier Paul Baumer, or any others associated with the film. This is just how early Hollywood films were made. Three years after the first talkies appeared, All Quiet still seems like a silent picture in many ways.

A very good one though. The visual storytelling is brilliant—from one of the initial scenes of troops marching past school windows flanking the jingoistic old teacher haranguing his young students to the last scene of the soldier's dead hand reaching for a butterfly.

Classroom scene in 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front.

Throughout, the use of shadow, the juxtaposition of odd images, and dramatic camera angles provides fodders for film-study classes. Especially effective are the scenes of Baumer in the crater trying to save the French soldier he had just attempted to kill, the camaraderie he experiences with his fellow soldiers (especially with Katczinsky played memorably by Louis Wolheim), and his disorienting return to civilization which sends him running back to the front where paradoxically he feels most alive.

The heart-rending conclusion to the 1930 film is a change on the novel but in complete agreement with its spirit.

— Eric