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All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray Review)

27 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$39.98 Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo pack
Not rated.
Stars Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Slim Summerville.

Due to plain old ignorance or a severe memory fumble, someone’s reference a few years ago to a silent alternative version of Oscar’s third Best Picture winner caught me by surprise. What really makes this interesting — and we’re talking about one of my favorite movies here — is that several people in a position to know have since mentioned that they actually prefer it to the more familiar talkie, which at one point had been butchered so much over the years that one almost had to wonder how familiar even it was these days.

Universal production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. spent a fortune amid a looming Depression to film Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel, though the early 1930s were interesting years for pacifistic content in Hollywood pictures (see also the Fredric March-Cary Grant-Carole Lombard The Eagle and the Hawk from 1933). With audiences caught between two world wars (though obviously, they didn’t know the horrors that were coming), it was a susceptible time for a movie that is still unflinching in its portrayal of the grunt’s burden at the hands of political opportunists, and even the shoehorned inclusion later at one point of a few frisky females for pacing relief seems in keeping with what could likely happen. The story was, of course, taken from the German point of view, and more than most of what I first saw at an impressionable age, AQ showed how subversive the movies can be. In addressing the question of how Americans could be rooting for these guys, it was pretty obvious that “universal” didn’t just refer to the film’s distributor.

Not that you could see, in later years, the original release print, which clocks in at about 133 minutes. By the time the picture starting getting TV showings in either the very late ’50s or very early ’60s, re-issues and other tinkering (this was always a controversial masterpiece) had seen it whittled down to about 101. When I first saw it on the late, late show as a very young teenager, I remember it ending about a half-hour earlier than expected and my getting to bed at a more reasonable time. As for the resulting continuity lapses, I chalked them up to AQ being an early talkie, in which narrative craters were not infrequent.

I finally got to see the real deal in summer, 1980, at the Telluride Film festival — a nitrate original with lead Lew Ayres to introduce it (I suspect he was seeing the full version for the first time in decades). This was extremely moving because I grew up hearing stories of how the experience of making AQ had turned the popular actor  (who’d been MGM’s Dr. Kildare, after all) into a conscientious objector during World II — and that even a praiseworthy stint with the Medical Corp. couldn’t quite restore his career to its former plateau (though he did get an Oscar nomination for 1948’s Johnny Belinda). One didn’t get the impression that day that he had any regrets.

Brilliantly directed by Lewis Milestone and shot by Casablanca’s Arthur Edeson, the extensive combat sequences are second to very, very few and still have tremendous clout. The print here is taken off the original negative — but what surprises is how good that negative must be for its age and/or the degree to which restorer techno-wizards at the Library of Congress knocked it into shape. There are movies that came out a year ago that don’t look anywhere near this great on Blu-ray, proof that when the money is spent, an old movie really can look the way it did on opening night, long before most of us were born.

The silent version also is included, and I can see why some prefer it: the presentation is more seamless (though the two running times are very close), and the score is effective (the talking version has effects and an occasional vocal utterance here and there but no full score). But I would call it a wash: I like hearing the verbal component of not only Ayers’s performance but that of Louis Wolheim as the young recruits’ weathered sarge, who would have been a natural fit in a later   war as a stubbled Bill Mauldin cartoon character. Occasional dialogue readings are occasionally stilted in that early-talkie manner — but by and large, I’m always surprised by how powerful much of the acting is. And the late scene where an on-leave Ayers lets loose in amid the rah-rah classroom atmosphere that implored him to enlist in the first place remains a killer — and you can feel it coming before it happens even if you’ve never seen the film.

Of all the movies that have won the best picture Oscar, AQ is among the most deserving in terms of the year’s competition (How Green Was My Valley is actually another of the greatest films to win top honor, but in 1941, it beat Citizen Kane, so history gives Valley an undeserved bad rap). The filmmaking is by and large exemplary, and time, alas, hasn’t muted its major sub-theme about war mongering. It was, fact, exactly the movie I thought of when Mitt Romney recently talked about how much money he’d be willing to spend building up the military in during his recent campaigning.

Now that this milestone has gotten the home-release treatment it merits, I hope Universal finally brings out a good CinemaScope copy of Douglas Sirk’s penultimate A Time To Love and a Time To Die, also adapted from a novel by Remarque. John Gavin is as much as a liability as ever, but Lilo Pulver and the Scope framing are luminous.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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