In my last personal time post, I mentioned that I might throw some curveballs your way, and here is the first. Several years ago I started watching the Academy Award winners for Best Picture in order (when possible). Wings, the first winner ever in 1928, was not available for a long time. Fortunately it now is, and I will have to catch up. An interesting fact about Wings: it was the only silent movie to win Best Picture until The Artist recently won in 2011. This project is more challenging than it sounds. Some movies are not that watchable any more because my 21st century movie going mind is understimulated. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for whatever is next on the list. And sometimes I have to contend with my own personal biases. I’m still struggling with what to do when Annie Hall comes up. I’ve avoided this movie for a long time maintaining that Star Wars should have won the award in 1977. Regardless, I’ve pushed on, just not always at the pace I would like.
After Wings, in 1929, came The Broadway Melody, a musical that may have been exceptional in its day, but one which I found boring and repetitive. In 1931 the winner was Cimarron, an unwatchable western that had no backstory, no character development and more plot holes than potholes on I-94 in Michigan (if you’ve driven there, then you know). However, sandwiched between those two is a masterful anti-war film adapted from the acclaimed novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Most American students are required to read this book at some point in their education, and I would bet that many more people have seen the 1979 version than the 1930 version, which I would guess is the least known of the three.
Going in, this film had a lot working against it. I was fresh off my viewing of The Broadway Melody which definitely colored my impression of movies from this era. I had already read the book several times in my life, and movies are never as good as the books, right? Additionally, in this era of war movies like The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, I thought, “how can a black and white movie from eighty years ago compare to these raw and brutally honest depictions of war?” My only experience with older military movies were the more romanticized and sometimes comical films like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape. I love both of these movies, but I don’t know if they are Best Picture worthy.
Well, man, was I wrong. All Quiet on the Western Front was not just the best film from 1930, nor is it one of the best movies from that era; it is one of the best war movies ever made. I caught camera and directorial techniques that obviously influenced movies like Pulp Fiction and Saving Private Ryan. The rawness and horrific suffering of World War I is so perfectly captured that it is almost impossible to watch this film and not come away changed with a better understanding of war and the human condition overall.
All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930 is available on both Amazon Instant Video and iTunes for both rent and purchase. Give yourself about two and a half hours to watch it, and I guarantee that it will be two and a half hours well spent this weekend.
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