To say that this movie is one of the greatest war films of all time would be an understatement. Naturally, since the picture is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s marvelous novel, the screenwriter was given quite a powerful story to begin with. The three main reasons why I consider this movie so forceful are the acting, the cinematography, and simply the sincerity.
Lew Ayres, the man who plays Paul Baumer, convincingly portrays the main character in many ways. First of all, the sheer innocence of his facial appearance adds a poignant touch to the film, because the overwhelming theme of the story is how the war effects all young people of each nation, whether that person dies in the trenches or survives only to lament his days in the war. Ironically, when the film was initially being put together, Remarque, the novelist who won critical acclaim for writing the book, was asked to play the role of Paul. Having seen time in the war the producers must have thought him aptly prepared to play the role. But he declined because he had other commitments and because he felt he was not such a great actor. Lucky for us, because Ayres gives a powerful performance. Other characters with relatively minor roles have major importance in the film because they portray touching, heart wrenching scene s of death. These peripheral characters all help add to the general tone of the film (and the book) because they show how dark and terrible the war can be; and they in turn show how propaganda can be so harmful, because most of the soldiers in Paul’s regiment are volunteers who receive a very rude awakening when they discover what the war is really all about. The acting is simply superb, and perhaps this is due to the fact that the famous director George Cukor was an assistant who, although uncredited, came onto the set to help supervise the actors (possibly because director Lewis Milestone’s English was not too good).
The cinematography of this film is absolutely magnificent. The film rarely has gory sequences because the director finds other ways to imply death and still have the same emotional effect. One way in which he does this is by showing single body parts (such as a hand or a leg) and allowing these appendages to show the death of the soldier as a whole. Also, the cameraman uses overhead angles at times with great skill and also focuses on the trenches at times as the soldiers fall back into them after being shot (which implies that the trenches are a symbol of hell, because soldiers fall into them to die). In short, the cinematographer Arthur Edeson allows the camera to do the talking and to drive the film, rather than the dialogue (speaking of which, there is relatively little; the actors’ facial expressions do the bulk of the talking in the film).
When I say this film is sincere I really can’t give you any tangible evidence to prove the point; all I can tell you is to see the film. The film at times overwhelmed me with emotion to the extent that I got goose bumps from watching some of the more agonizing scenes. In a way, this movie is much like a silent film. This stands to reason because it came at the very beginning of the ‘talkie’ age, only three years after The Jazz Singer (1927). Also, Milestone directed silent films before this one, and he seemed to know that less focus on dialogue and more focus on acting would bring about an overwhelmingly emotional and well, sincere, film. The film obviously had an effect on its star, Mr. Ayres, because once World War II began and he was drafted into the war, he conscientiously protested serving in the army because of his opinions towards war. I believe he admits that his opinions stem from his work in this movie. Certainly this is a powerful admission, because his protest caused him and his films to be blacklisted in Hollywood, and his career suffered greatly because of his ideals. So if you don’t believe my words about the power of this film, believe his.