Living pictures of phantom dead

Cinema and the Great War - Filming All Quiet on the Western Front

July 2, 1999

Although the cinema was still in its teenage years in 1914, the governments of the belligerent powers all recognised its huge propaganda value and promoted the systematic production of record and propaganda. Television has time and again shown how inexorably compelling is the old newsreel and documentary footage apostrophised at the time not by one of the great young war poets but by the Establishment's Sir Henry Newbolt:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground...

Dramatic films of the great war passed through many distinct phases. At first there were the virulent propagandist hate films of early wartime - what H.A.L. Fisher tellingly called "the evil of subsidised prejudice and mendacity". The public rapidly reacted against these, and forced the industry back into the production of escapism.

The first big postwar production about the conflict, Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) was still rabidly anti-German, and owed its enormous success to the fame of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's novel, the breathtaking spectacle of Ingram's production, and the charm of its new star, Rudolph Valentino. A more sustained revival of interest in the war came with the box-office triumphs of King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925) and Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory? (1926), both concerned with private and individual catastrophes. A different style emerged in 1926-, when the mood of reconciliation following the Locarno Pact brought a period of amiable mutual post-mortems on the great actions of the war by the former combatants.

Inspired by the burgeoning war literature of the late 1920s, the early sound film brought a new, reflective attitude, with all illusion finally dispelled. The films of this phase included, most memorably, G.W. Pabst's Westfront 1918 (1930), James Whale's Journey's End (1930) and the Ukrainian-born Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which, with Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), must stand alongside the finest works of art of any sort that commemorate that Armageddon.

Films since then have not changed much in their view of the war: down to Paths of Glory and the recent Regeneration, they have remained fixed and unequivocal in their dominant themes, which Andrew Kelly characterises as "the waste and brutality of conflict, the suffering at home and at the front, the comradeship of enemies, the failures of the high command and the veteran as the forgotten man".

The title of Kelly's Cinema and the Great War is misleading, since his concern is strictly with anti-war films. He analyses 20 of these, from America, Britain, Germany, France and Denmark. This means that some of the most famous war films - My Four Years in Germany , Hearts of the World , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , What Price Glory ?, The Dawn Patrol , Wings - merit only a passing reference. More surprisingly, Charles Chaplin's Shoulder Arms is not mentioned at all. While Hollywood was shocked at Chaplin's audacity in transmuting into comedy all the horror of mud, lice, rats, trench foot, hunger and terror, the fighting men embraced the film as their own. Twelve years before All Quiet ..., Chaplin dared for the first time to suggest "the comradeship of enemies", the human sympathy that is ultimately stronger than the orders that force common men to go out and kill one another.

Curiously, Kelly's Cinema and the Great War and his Filming All Quiet on the Western Front (originally published in 1958) are essentially the same book, with passages of text often duplicated word for word and a number of the same key illustrations. The difference is mostly one of structural proportion. The All Quiet ... monograph neatly condenses the analysis of the other films, and drops one or two of the less relevant (like Things to Come ), in order to expand the material on the main film. The result is a briefer but more successful book, discarding the not-always-illuminating opinions of contemporary critics, and making less apparent the distinction between the films analysed from first-hand study and those where the author has depended on variable secondary sources.

Kelly's genuine passion for Milestone's great film is infectious and justified. The production represented remarkable altruism on the part of Universal Pictures's diminutive founder and chief, Carl Laemmle. Risking the company's biggest-ever budget, such a grim subject ("gruesome" was the odd word most contemporary reviewers chose) defied the Depression-era hunger for escapism. The ferocious political hostility from Germany - one of Hollywood's best markets - was all too predictable.

It was a critical and box-office success wherever it was allowed to be shown, but it was calculated to antagonise reactionary censors everywhere, with its condemnation of militarism and depiction of the reality rather than fantasies of violence. It was human and it was poetic.

In time, the combined efforts of censors and of distributors too eager to please the export market reduced the film by practically one third of its length. In the second world war, for the sake of propaganda, more abbreviated than ever, it was supplied with a raucous and bellicose voice-over commentary.

The book is a warning of how easily little bits of history vanish from memory. Having chronicled the saga of the progressive butchery of the film, Kelly notes that "according to (Paul) Rotha, Universal I donated copies of the film to corporations and councils in England to act as a permanent record of the conflict. Whether this happened is open to question". Not at all: Laemmle of Universal did indeed achieve considerable publicity by ceremoniously presenting copies of the film, sealed in gilt canisters, to half a dozen cities. Most were promptly mislaid by ungrateful civic authorities, but in the late 1950s the Manchester copy came to light. The canister was opened to reveal an integral print of the film in pristine state, with colour tinting and a trailer on the end promising the forthcoming film of Remarques's sequel to All Quiet ..., The Road Back . (In fact it was to be seven years before that film was made, in severely compromised form, by James Whale.) The Manchester print was projected a few times (at great risk: it was on highly flammable nitrate film stock) before being deposited in the National Film and Television Archive. This is not, however, the only untouched print that has survived to make proper restoration possible. Another still surviving pristine copy was privately conserved by the film's most implacable public enemy, Joseph Goebbels.

Given the chance to see the film in its integral form, few of us are likely to disagree with Kelly's conclusion that All Quiet on the Western Front "comes down through the years with an ever-timely message; where cinema exists, this most disastrous of wars, this appalling waste of a nation's youth, will never be forgotten. It is a memorial - and an ever-present warning - as fitting and honourable as any that grace a village, town or city."

David Robinson is a film critic and historian, and director of the Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone Silent Film Festival).

Cinema and the Great War

Author - Andrew Kelly
ISBN - 0 415 05203 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00
Pages - 219

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