Tuesday, April 10, 2012

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)

RATING: 7.5/10

A powerful war novel makes a so-so television movie.

The big screen version of All Quiet on the Western Front attracted plenty of attention when it was released in 1930.

The drama about German soldiers experiencing the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War earned Academy Awards for best picture and director (Lewis Milestone).

A television effort followed nearly 50 years later under the hand of Delbert Mann (Marty, That Touch of Mink). Is there some symbolism at work when one of the first images is of a shell hitting a church? Some may wonder if God forgot about so many doomed men in the trenches.

You'd be hard-pressed to find much German talent in this 130-minute film. America, England and even Czechoslovakia, where the movie was shot, are all represented in the film's cast. Germany, not so much.

Mann reunites with Marty star Ernest Borgnine at Katczinksy, the veteran soldier who takes Paul Baumer (Richard Thomas) and several of his classmates under his wing when they first arrive in No Man's Land.

Kat, as he's called, advises his new comrades to forget what they've learned during basic training. He offers life-saving advice on why a shovel is a more effective killing tool than a bayonet.

Thomas was familiar to American audiences from the television family drama, The Waltons. His comrades are mostly English actors such as Matthew Evans (Muller), Dominic Jephcott (Leer) and Mark Drewry (Tjaden). Few gained much attention in North America, although Ewan Stewart (Detering) was 1st Officer Murdoch in James Cameron's Titanic.

Baumer is a soft-spoken teenager who enjoys sketching animals. His teacher, Kantorek (Donald Pleasence), calls him a dreamer. Kantorek is very big on encouraging his students to fight for the Fatherland.

"You are our iron youth," he tells his charges on the last day of class before graduation.
"The time for duty has begun."

Twenty members of Baumer's class enrol in the army. One by one they are killed in action, suffer serious wounds or go missing.

Baumer experiences hell at war and at home. He struggles with seeing his friends die, then having to put up with his eager father (Michael Sheard) eager to trot him around town in his uniform to show him off when he's on leave. A friend's mother wants the grisly details of her son's death and questions why Paul is still alive when her child is dead.

The movie is fairly faithful to German author Erich Maria Remarque's must read book. This movie lover is a huge fan of Remarque's work. Some scenes in this film just don't ring true, or could have benefitted from the additional detail Remarque includes in his work.

Yet other scenes, where Paul meets his dead friend's mother, and when he writes a letter to his own mother (Patricia Neal) describing how war has changed him, are incredibly powerful.

The violence depicted in the first 30 minutes of Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is overwhelming. Eager to fight? Watch that film. Will another filmmaker bring All Quiet on the Wester Front to the screen in the 21st century complete with graphic depictions of trench warfare?

Well, yes.

Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) is tagged to direct a new film version of this book, Internet Movie Database reports.

Hints of that brutality are included in this film. Bodies fly through the air during shelling. Cries of pain are heard. A severed hand hangs from barbed wire.

Men still fight and die. Paul's friends planned to become ministers, lawyers and foresters. Two survive. All Quiet dares to suggest the enemy's humanity and war's ability to grind up countless lives.

FUN FACTS: Michael Sheard played Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back.

Matthew Evans only has two acting credits. Directing television shows is his forte.

This isn't a fun fact. Mark Drewry, who appeared as Tjaden, died in 2004 at age 49. He died of injuries he suffered in a collision when he was riding a bike.

Ian Holm, Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, was the recruits' nemesis, Himmelstoss.

Donald Pleasence was Blythe 'The Forger' in another great war film, The Great Escape.

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