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All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray)

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Actors: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray / Director: Lewis Milestone / Classification: 12 / Studio: Universal / Released: 10 Sep 2012 / Run Time: 127 minutes

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      30.11.2012 09:51
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      A classic war film gets a good Blu-ray release

      This Universal Blu-ray is about £10 on amazon at present.

      This is one of the earliest Hollywood films of the sound era that has remained popular (or at least, people have still heard of it. That's quite an achievement for a film that isn't a comedy, a horror movie or a gangster flick). It won Best Picture at the third ever Oscar ceremony and is that rarest of things: a Hollywood message film that doesn't drown under its own earnestness.

      It's a Word War One film, with a strong anti-war message. It was controversial at the time because it is told from the point of view of the Germans, and it was felt in some quarters that humanising the still-recent enemy was somehow a bad thing. Ironically, the novel it was based on, and the film itself, were banned in Nazi Germany a few years later for being critical of the Wehrmacht. You can't win.

      At the outbreak of war, a class full of idealistic German teens are persuaded to enlist by their patriotic teacher. We follow them through basic training, and then as they are sent to the front. There, inevitably, most of them are killed pretty quickly. The film focuses on Paul Baumer, one of the boys, and the various things that happen to him during the course of the war.

      An awful lot of the clichés of war films start here. Young recruits being blooded; the harsh training regime; the old, wise, initially gruff but actually lovable fatherly soldier; the chaotic first battle scene and much, much more. This wasn't the first Hollywood film to be generally anti-war - a silent film, The Big Parade, got there first - but this is the first one (I think) not to have any kind of love story tacked on. Hollywood had typically used the war as a backdrop for love stories, as in films like Wings or The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There aren't many women in All Quiet.

      It's remarkably modern in some ways. The battle scenes - the first one especially - are confusing and chaotic and violent. There's a myth that early sound films were unsatisfactory affairs in which cameras couldn't move and all artistry had been sucked out - I think this idea is largely due to the films Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain, both from the 1950s (i.e. far enough away to be able to make claims like that, confident that most people would have forgotten the reality). The battle scenes in All Quiet are exciting, with mobile camerawork that Spielberg would envy. A few scenes use sped up film in a way that looks a bit daft. This happens in quite a few early sound films (Fritz Lang was still doing it as late as The Testament of Dr Mabuse two years later) - evidently some scenes were shot silent with sound dubbed on later. But these are only a few moments in an otherwise very modern-looking film.

      As was often the case in early sound film, there's no incidental music at all. This is probably preferable to modern war films, which often ladle on orchestral music, often over slow motion sequences, but the silence does sometimes sound a bit eerie.

      Very modern - ahead of its time, really - is the film's attitude. This was made before the introduction of the Hollywood Production Code, which ruthlessly removed any hint of impropriety from movies. Consequently, it gets away with things that would have been unthinkable even three years later. There are brief flashes of male nudity, when some of the characters go for a swim. The fight scenes are violent - we see a pair of severed hands dangling from barbed wire. The trenches are teeming with vermin - we see the soldiers beating rats to death (happily no real rats seem to have been harmed). One of the raw recruits soils himself during the first artillery barrage (something I don't think you'd even find in many modern war films). And perhaps most surprising, some of the soldiers, including the hero, use food to buy sex from some local women.

      It has its fair share of clunky dialogue. There's one scene where everyone sits around and bemoans the fact that wars are incomprehensible to people like them, and that it's government and big business who benefit. Which is true, of course, but doesn't have to be spelled out in quite such a clumsy way. There's a bit too much of that kind of stuff. It's unnecessary, as what happens in the film shows how rotten war is for the people fighting it. The film is great when it *shows* us war is bad. When it *tells* us war is bad it stumbles, and feels its age. The little lectures might be in the novel, it's been many years since I read it so I can't remember. If they are, though, they should have been edited out of the film. It's more effective when Paul goes back home on leave and finds that civilians have a completely unrealistic idea of what war is about.

      The performances are good, although no one in the film is famous. The hero, played by Lew Ayres, is perfectly decent, and looks a bit like Jude Law. The most impressive performance is from Louis Wolheim as the grizzled soldier Kat. John Wray is also good as the loathsome Himmelstoss, the training sergeant. I guess Paul is meant to be more of an everyman figure than a compelling protagonist, and flashy performances would have been inappropriate.

      The Blu-ray looks pretty stunning given the film's age age. It's had extensive work done to patch up the print (there are still scratches occasionally, but remarkably few). There's some visible digital jiggery pokery - faces occasionally have a weird sheen to them. But overall it looks fantastic - the level of detail is terrific, and while it looks like they've smoothed away a bit too much in places, all in all this is immensely watchable and hugely enhances the film when compared to other versions that have been available. That's all you really want from a Blu-ray. Universal are maddeningly inconsistent in their Blu-rays, sometimes putting in a lot of effort (the recent Universal Horror boxset), other times trying to fob us off with any old crap (the David Lynch boxset). Happily, this is one of their better efforts.

      The extras are an odd bunch. There's not really very much that's specific to the film - apart, that is, from the silent version of the movie. It's basically the exact same film, but without synchronised sound, and with some intertitles in place of spoken dialogue. The performances are clearly pitched for a sound version, so it doesn't feel like a silent film, just a sound film with the sound turned down. The battle sequences still look just as good, but without the sound effects they do lose a lot of their impact. It's in standard definition, so makes a good comparison piece for the restored movie, just to see how much better it looks now.

      Apart from that, there's a trailer and a short piece about restoring Universal's classic movies. Another seven-minute feature about Universal's Oscar winning movies feels pretty desperate. All Quiet was an unusually prestigious picture from a studio more used to cheap and cheerful horror movies, and Universal haven't made much noise on the Oscar front. There really aren't many Oscar winners to celebrate, and when clips from The Nutty Professor and The Grinch start to show up, you know barrels are being scraped.

      The cover image annoys me slightly. There's a famous moment involving a butterfly in the film, so they've stuck a butterfly on Paul's helmet on the front cover. This is rather crass and feels a bit cheap.

      If it's not as heavy on the extras as some releases, this is still a good enough version of a classic, rather neglected film. It looks great now, and is definitely worth getting hold of.

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