Performances so valiant that they border on gallantry help make the new three-hour CBS version of "All Quiet on the Western Front" worth its weight in time. The "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production, at 8 tonight on Channel 9, is both spectacular and more penetrating than most films made for TV.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel and Lewis Mileston's 1930 movie, "Front" is a kind of "Apocalypse Then," an antiwar movie set in World War i but, through the efforts of writer Paul Monash and director Delbert Mann, riddled with requisite universality. It is a harrowing view of the lone futility of battle, and not going gentle if there if still one last scream left in your throat.
Richard Thomas comes out of his John-Boy haze to make a substantial impression as Paul, the young German who answers the call of "the fatherland" and the old professor who tell his class of boys, "You are our iron youth." His best scene is the one that finds him stranded in a trench with an enemy solider he has mortally wounded.
"Comrade, I did not want to kill you," he says, in one of many lines of dialogue taken directly from the novel. Monash and Mann have been rigorously faithful to the book, even to the point of opening with Remarque's own prologue.
TV movies are filled with images but usually devoid of imagery. Mann, the Golden Age vet whose TV work included Chayefsky's classic "Marty," is not a florid or extravagant director. He comes from a traditon that prized narrative simplicity. This makes him an ideal choice to deal with horrifying or emotional material that in other hands might turn purple, but it also means there is nothing in the picture to match Milestone's eloquent emage of the solider reaching for a butterfly just before he is shot to death.
Yet there are such profoundly chilling scenes as one in which wounded horses flee burning rubble; they shriek in pain and panic while a soldier cries out for them to be shot in the name of mercy. Occasionally Mann flashes back from a young man's death to shots of him as he was before the war; the poignance is graceful and devastating.
Combat is deglamorized and shown for what it is, degradation on a massive scale. There are rats in the trenches; they eat bread and they crawl over corpses. To his credit, Mann can convey rank brutality without gore or balletic battlefield choreography. Not even the explosions seem pretty, and production designer John Stoll has maintained a fastidious fog of green, gray and brown.
If Thomas' performance is refreshingly attentive, Ernest Borgnine's as the protective, cynical Katczinsky is surprisingly so. You want to pin a medal on the old man, then and there. Thomas may deserve a purple heart, as well, for picking Borgnine up and carrying him the last few hundred yards of Katczinsky's life, in one of the film's closing scenes.
Borgnine, whose singular hulkiness has been squandered on a number of trifling films in recent years, shows agains the range that has encompassed everything from the viciousness of Fatso Judson in "From Here to Eternity" to the pathos of the aging Bronx bachelor in the film version of "Marty," which Mann also directed.
His great scene in "Front" comes late, when he is telling a naively gun-ho 16-year-old recruit how effective a weapon a spade can be and how, when properly applied, it can turn a man into a corpse.
The casting is strikingly accurate throughout, especially Ian Holm as Himmelstoss, the embittered postal worker who becomes a colonel, and George Winter as poor Kemmerich, who loses a leg early in the film and knows full well he is going to die in the hospital ward where he lies helpless. k
European locations are used to the fullest possible advantage and for once there appear to be enough extras to actually fight a war. This being television, though, it is not troop movements but rather haunted eyes that finally make the drama work, and it works like there's no tomorrow.