Considering that a 1930 black-and-white adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first films to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s no surprise that Hollywood avoided revisiting the story for decades. Once cameras rolled on a fresh take, albeit for television, restrictions on what could be shown had relaxed sufficiently for the 1979 version of All Quiet on the Western Front to play rougher than its predecessor. Particularly when viewed in the “uncut” extended version that was released theatrically in Europe, the 1979 All Quiet on the Western Front is much bloodier than Lewis Milestone’s 1930 feature. It’s also much less poetic, though it nearly matches the earlier film in terms of scope.
The story follows a group of German soldiers during World War I as they evolve from new recruits to battle-hardened veterans. At the center of the piece is Paul Baumer (played by Richard Thomas of The Waltons), a gentle artist who learns to kill out of necessity. The story tracks Paul’s relationships with many people, including fellow enlisted men as well as cruel training officer Himmelstoss (Ian Holm) and pragmatic NCO Katczinsky (Ernest Borgnine). The Himmelstoss character represents ambitious conformists whose participation in the military brings out inhumane qualities, and the Katczinsky character represents the challenges faced by those who wish to survive war with their souls intact. Per the forceful but schematic architecture of Remarque’s storyline, Paul finds himself pulled between these extremes—as well as other impulses—while he resists the circumstances that could otherwise compel him to become a callous killing machine.
Though his work is earnest and rigorous, leading man Thomas is the weak link in this production, hitting voiceover lines too mechanically and playing scenes too obviously. By contrast, Borgnine, Holm, and Donald Pleasance—who plays a schoolteacher with dubious notions of nationalism—all come across as nuanced and subtle. Generally speaking, All Quiet on the Western Front commands and rewards attention. Cinematographer John Coquillon and director Delbert Mann create a rich widescreen look with much more texture than the average ’70s telefilm, composer Allyn Ferguson layers scenes with suitably ominous music, and the picture contains several startling images. Rats chewing on corpses. A dazed man begging mercy for wounded horses. Lines of soldiers dropping from gunfire as they climb out of trenches. It’s all quite potent, from the unexpected significance of what happens to a wounded soldier’s boots to the grim final images that succinctly express Remarque’s antiwar themes.
All Quiet on the Western Front: GROOVY