A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1930 – All Quiet on the Western Front
I have a very small list in terms of true directorial achievements throughout the history of film. Feature-wise… you start with Intolerance, and then you don’t really get anything until this movie. And then after this, there’s maybe… two more before 1970. But in terms of classical Hollywood, there are really only about four or five movies that are truly, to me, milestones of (American) film directing. And this is one of them.
Whenever this film would come up during the Oscar Quest, I’d say, “This film is so good, it could have won Best Director and Best Picture every year between the year it was released and 1939. No film could have beaten it. No directorial achievement was better than this one during that time. This was truly the greatest American film made for an entire decade. And even now, the film still holds up as a masterpiece that has not aged a day.
The film is based on what is now one of the most famous novels ever written, one we all read in school at some point, and was the highest-grossing movie of its year. So, through continued relevance (we’ve all watched this in school as well), and popularity and acclaim at the time of release (it did win Best Picture and Best Director), it’s the only film you can choose for 1930 as the film that defines its year.
Now, I’m kind of at a loss as to what to talk about for this movie, because I have gone over it in the past. But since I’ve really done all my explaining as to why it’s the only choice, I’m just going to reuse what I’ve already written to show you why it’s the choice.
By the way, if you’ve seen the film (and you should watch it again, to remind yourself of this fact), you’ll honestly be amazed at how well it holds up and how incredible a film it is. Especially when you think about the fact that it was made over 80 years ago during a time when Hollywood had a problem making movies with sound that weren’t set against a brick wall. Without ‘talking into plants,’ Hollywood couldn’t capture sound until the mid-30s, and yet this film exists right in the middle of that.
So I’ll leave you with what I wrote when I wrote up this film for the Oscar Quest. This is why I chose it. This is why it represents 1930:
The opening shot is a standard tableau shot, as a dude sweeps up a shop and a woman cleans the floor. But then, what he does is, opens the door in the background, which would have never happened in films of this era, because there was nothing behind the door. It was just the end of the set. But here’s a film that’s like, “This isn’t all we have, we go deeper than this.” And he opens the door, which gives us this shot:
And right here, I’m like, “Holy shit, depth!” Because I’ve seen my fair share of late 20s/early 30s films — depth in those films is like seeing an action sequence shot nowadays where you can make sense of what the fuck is happening. (Rare.)
And then what happens is, the camera pans to the right of the shop (in other films, there wouldn’t be an other part of the shop), and gives us this shot, out the storefront window:
And right here, I’m like, “Holy shit, two planes of action. This is incredible.” This is something I haven’t seen since the silent era, because it would literally be impossible in 1930 for 90% of films to not only have all of this action happening at once (deep in the background), and have all the sound be captured as well.
And this is literally less than thirty seconds into the film. Not one word has been spoken yet. This is literally the film telling you, “We’re gonna do more than just leave the camera in a room.”
And then the camera does even more — it tracks outside, through the window and into the crowds and the troops. It moves! Right there, a minute into this film, it’s automatically a better directorial effort than every film that would win Best Director until 1939. No joke. Everything between this and Gone With the Wind is not a better directorial effort than this film. (Unless we’re counting Grand Illusion, which didn’t win, so, 1938. Still…)
And what’s more, the film continues, giving you compositions like this:
It has continuous action going on outside while an entire scene is going on inside. That’s unheard of. Other films could barely handle one continuous plane of action.
The sound design on this film — given when it was released — is flawless. That’s worth a semester’s worth of study alone.
Then there’s this:
Gorgeous composition in and of itself. But what you see is the line of action going horizontally across the bottom (the soldiers), with the CO on top giving you both a focal point for the shot (he’s the one shouting) as well as a line of sight to the vertical plane (all the soldiers marching) that’s also moving along simultaneously with the horizontal one at the bottom. It’s genius. Then:
The film literally goes inside the trenches. It had to — that’s the story. But — the fact that they pulled it off in this era is really a testament to the direction of Lewis Milestone here. You know how hard it was for most films to record sound in a set, on a soundstage? Here’s a film shot outside! Awar film!
Seriously, these five images alone should be enough to award an Oscar.
And then — here’s my favorite shot in the film:
Look at the beauty of this image.
First, it’s diagonal! I haven’t seen a dynamic use of the diagonal in American films like this since silent films (you see it a lot in the really old ones, like D.W. Griffith. Since the diagonal gives an actor the ability to walk across the screen and look as though they’re moving across a distance. If they shot head on, you can’t really tell exactly where they are in relation to the camera. Plus moving diagonally makes the frame more visually interesting). But, you have the soldiers moving diagonal down and to the left.
Then, in the middle of the frame, you have the horses and carriages moving diagonal down and to the right.
And then, up in the top left, you have a third plane of action! There are three things happening at once within this frame! The trucks are moving diagonally up and to the left.
And yet — all of this — is not confusing at all. When you see this shot in the film, you can see all of this happening very clearly and concisely, and it looks so smooth. It’s really quite beautiful.
This film is a masterpiece.