ANTHEMS (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from The Brown Wedge

Dir. Lewis Milestone

The first version of this story I saw — though I barely remember anything about it, I was only eight at the time and didn’t have a full grasp of the historical setting — was this 1979 TV version. Then there’s the original book, a fine text indeed and one which the TV movie follows more closely, I seem to remember (both book and 1979 movie start in medias res, for instance). But then there’s the 1930 movie version, spectacularly popular, winner of the Oscar for that year, and source for a series of parodies in the years thereafter (clearly the winner has to be the astoundingly wrong So Quiet on the Canine Front). And so with my head full of reading Tommy, I decided the other night to take a break and revisit the film, which I own on DVD.

The first time I saw it, it was screened as an adjunct to the public TV documentary I mentioned in the first part, and I taped as I watched it, figuring I would enjoy it enough to rewatch — which I did, quite extensively, leading me to get the DVD as soon as I had my first player. Having not seen it in a while, though, allowed me to see through fresher eyes that have perhaps been spoiled by so many near-perfect Criterion transfers or restorations. The print Universal has, though not unwatchable by any means, could do with a scrub-up of the visual static, while a more detailed deluxe presentation would be a dream — on the making of the movie, its reception, more about how who came to be cast and why, the reasons why it was made and turned out to be so successful, analyses in general, etc. etc. I’d happily pay again for that if it reflected all the due possible care that could into such a project.

And of course, it’s because the film really is so very, very good. Not perfect, I’d say, no, but to my mind admittedly untrained mind it comes across as an example of how the transition to sound was so rewarding and so readily grasped. That may seem like a strange reason to praise a film in particular but to my mind All Quiet on the Western Front is a film of experimentation, of trying to work with the bounds and possibilities of recorded sound for film images in many different ways. It’s as if the rules, whatever they were, weren’t quite established yet, not like they had been visually for two decades beforehand in a slow accretion of shorthand and conventions. And so the movie takes advantage of its setting — a chaotic war and its interludes — to range from near-silence to some of the most staggering, impact-filled explosions one can hear.

I’m quite serious about that last point. In an era of home digital stereo montrosities giving you wall-to-wall everything, it’s important to realize just how…visceral, I suppose the word is, that the bombardments and attacks throughout the film can be. They’re often incredibly monstrous, certainly complemented by appropriate visuals as needed, but quite often the dominant feature during a sequence. Consider the massive barrage unleashed while the patrol is out on wirework in the early part of the film, or the whistling shell screams and explosions that herald an attack while the camera tracks slowly up a trench full of soldiers waiting, just waiting, for whatever will happen next. Even the muffled bombings heard in the trench dugouts have their own grinding horror, and it’s no surprise that one of the most effective scenes is when the young recruits are coming to grips with the ceaseless pounding, but not entirely succeeding.

Also noteworthy is the near absence of what would seem essential in later years — a score. There’s an opening fanfare with the credits, yes, but from that point on all music is strictly source music, singalongs in pubs and chanting while on drill and the like, but otherwise no music at all, no “Paul’s Theme” or a melody for Kat. I don’t miss it at all — perhaps if there was one I would think differently and couldn’t imagine the film without it, but this breaking of a rule not yet codified turns out to be massively important, perhaps a fluke or perhaps a technical necessity, but for whatever reason quite memorable, strikingly so.

And then the story, and the rough humor and the desperation and the moments of camaraderie amidst the chaos, the slow and the fast times and the eternal grinding down and wearing away until all that is left is Paul, and then he too is gone, following the novel to its bitter end. The bitterest of endings in real wars must always be those who die last, when an end is in sight, when there is not much left to go, either because that’s obvious or because shortly thereafter there is no more war to fight. There’s a story I read years ago about the last American soldier to die in Vietnam that has always stuck with me, and here similarly Paul’s fate is the fictional equivalent of the worst waste of all. It’s structured in a straight beginning to end fashion, unlike the book as I noted earlier, but does not suffer for it, and for an adaptation it keeps most of the characters and many of the incidents. There are changes — Himmelstoss, the sadistic trainer of recruits, in the book eventually goes to fight as well and Paul and he come to be, if not friends, then at least comrades who were both different people years before. In the movie, he gets his ‘just desserts’ in perhaps a particularly American sense, proving to be a coward on the front line, berated and almost killed by Paul in angry frustration, and then shortly thereafter killed in a sudden burst of redemption by charging into the thick of battle, though the movie at least captures again the feeling of it being little more than another loss.

Lew Ayres as Paul is one of those inspired moments of casting where someone who is a beautiful enough young man, and who maybe hasn’t quite got full control of his acting abilities yet, turns out to be the right guy at the right time. There’s a scene where he impulsively prays to God to save a dying friend, and does so with a slow, wounded grace that’s at once shamelessly sentimental and, well, truly heartbreaking — a reminder that the characters are no more than desperate children, clinging yet to hope early on, then to each other and what humanity they can cling to later. Lewis Wolheim as Kat perhaps single-handed invented the cliche of the ugly, rough and hardbitten sarge or NCO with a heart of gold — it’s top notch casting and his gravelly but warm voice is exactly what’s needed.

But it’s Slim Summerville as Tjaden who is perhaps the real revelation — he made his reputation as a Keystone Kop, starred in many sound-era comedies as a character actor with Zasu Pitts and so forth. He definitely shows comedic gifts well — he’s a master at pulling long faces and delivering downbeat lines — but his humor isn’t out of place at all, it’s the humor, partly gallows and partly simply wry, of trying to hold on in the midst of a muddy hell. He too is a sympathetic figure par excellence but is not one to be cheery just for the sake of it, his humor and delivery aim to blunt the blow, ease the sting, release tension or concern somehow — a telling point early on is when he delivers a wry, dismissive line to Paul in response to his earnest question about food. Tjaden’s older comrades laugh bitterly, Paul takes offense, but then Tjaden swiftly explains himself, without apologizing or being mealy-mouthed but still immediately demonstrating sympathy and empathy, enough to assuage Paul’s feelings and give us a good peek into both their characters. It’s a lovely moment of acting, but perhaps the best of Summerville’s many moments comes near the end, when he walks into a shelled house where the remainder of his company is huddled, and initially does nothing but pause at the doorway, visibly sagging and slumping as he comes in. It’s a non-verbal portrait of sheer hopelessness, and confirms quite simply that Summerville was not just a comedian but an actor, a fine one.

Stepping back a touch, perhaps the lack of music in the movie is what then led me to think of something else…

(Part three will continue on New York London Paris Munich)