It hasn't been all quiet on the "All Quiet on the Western Front" front.
For the past three years, David Parker, a retired curator from the Library of Congress, has been supervising a restoration of Lewis Milestone's 1930 version of Erich Maria Remarque's famous novel about a sensitive German soldier in World War I.
Parker will introduce his restored version at the American Film Institute tonight at 8:15 and Sunday at 1 p.m.
To put it mildly, the restoration is terrific. It's like watching a freshly struck print, scratchless and fuzz-free, its vivid black-and-white cinematography restored to pristine, surrealistic beauty and terror. Possibly more important, the film has been returned to its original 1930 length, which gives each character more shading and motivation, and, moreover, recovers one particular image of horror that vanished early on.
This is a scene that many modern viewers will find eerily reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's great World War II film "Saving Private Ryan," with its gruesome detail. During a French attack the German forces bring fire on French infantry; look quickly and you'll see a man flounder under shell fire, try to pull himself up on a strand of barbed wire only to be obliterated by another explosion. When the smoke clears, only his two amputated hands can be seen still gripping the wire.
The Parker restoration also returns the film to its correct aspect ratio, or screen proportions, which means that modern audiences will see the film Milestone directed, instead of a scanned version reduced to accommodate a soundtrack (the original Vitaphone production was essentially a silent film with a record played with it for sound). When we see the whole image, we understand, for example, what Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) sees when he takes cover in a shell-pocked cemetery that so fills him with fear and disgust; and what a shoveler is clearing out of a ruined trench.
Those less technically oriented will see a film that feels utterly modern in its evocation of the horrors of war, and utterly ancient in its mastery of dramatic technique. The battle sequences have an intensity and starkness that are entirely convincing; the shells walk across the battlefield more like weather than artillery; the bullets peck about whimsically taking this man, and sparing that one. At times, the armies close and the combat becomes gruesome knife and shovel work, graceless, desperate, insane.
When the soldiers relax, however, the movie becomes talky and redundant, because in 1930, directors hadn't yet mastered sound technique and were trying to imitate stage conventions. The rhetorical style might be called emotionally declamatory, with each soldier given a lengthy speech to express his soul, and points being made over and over again. War is futile, Milestone instructs us, over and over and over again. True enough in a war without an Auschwitz or a Bataan Death March, but not so futile when people are being fed into ovens.
CAPTION: Dramatically, the battle scenes from 1930's "All Quiet on the Western Front" seem thoroughly modern.
CAPTION: The restoration returns the film to its correct screen proportions--audiences can see the film Lewis Milestone directed, rather than a scanned version reduced to accommodate a soundtrack.