Lewis Milestone (1895-1978)

Lewis Milestone
Lewis Milestone

Lewis Milestone was a movie director who began his career in silent movies and who became one of the top Hollywood directors in the early days of Talkies, receiving two Best Director Oscars, for 'Two Arabian Knights' in 1927, and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in 1930. He had a long career which finished after directing Marlon Brando in 1962's 'Mutiny on the Bounty'. He was successful in a variety of genres and became best known for his epic battle scenes and for his innovative use of fast, lateral tracking shots.


He was born Leib Milstein on September 30, 1895 in Kishinev, then in Russia, now called Chisinau, in Moldova. He came from a middle-class Jewish family and one of his cousins was Nathan Milstein, who became one of the finest violinists of the twentieth century. As a young man Leib was drawn to the theater and worked on amateur productions as a background artist although his family encouraged him to follow the more conventional career path of engineering. He was sent to study in Belgium and Berlin, but in 1912, aged 17, he took the decision to travel to the United States partly in order to escape being drafted into the Russian army during the First World War.

He did a variety of jobs including dishwasher and photographer's assistant before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1917 for service in the war. It was an important period for him as he was assigned to the Signal Corps to make educational short films for the. troops. He worked on such short films as 'The Toothbrush' in 1918, and 'Fit to Win' the following year, and he received a thorough grounding in all aspects of filmmaking, which would prove invaluable in the years to come.

He was discharged in 1919, changed his name to the more anglicised Lewis Milestone and became a naturalised U.S. citizen. He was determined on a career in his new speciality of filmmaking and he went to the new movie capital of the world, Hollywood.

Hollywood Career

Milestone started as an assistant cutter for director William A. Seiter, quickly working his way up the ladder to director's assistant on 'The Foolish Age' in 1921 and editor on 'Where the North Begins' in 1923, as well as screenwriter on many projects. The early 1920's was a great learning period for him and he received his first full directorial assignment in 1925 with 'Seven Sinners' which he also co-wrote with Darryl F. Zanuck. It was the start of a highly successful career.

In 1927, in the first-ever Oscar ceremony Milestone won an Academy Award for Best Comedy Direction (in that year only there were separate awards for Drama and Comedy), for 'Two Arabian Nights'. The following year, his gangster film 'The Racket' was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and in 1930 came his great early masterpiece.

'All Quiet on the Western Front'

This magnificent movie remains a powerful indictment of war. It was adapted from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for Milestone, and received a special commendation from the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

In 1931 Milestone gained further plaudits for his comedy 'The Front Page' for which he received a Best Director Academy Award nomination and he continued during the decade to make high quality, commercially successful movies including 'Rain' in 1932, the musical 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum' in 1933 and 'The General Died At Dawn' in 1936. In 1939 his stock rose still further when he produced and directed the first movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's masterpiece 'Of Mice and Men' which was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

With the entry of America into the Second World War, Milestone was able to return to the genre which had made his name. In 1943 he directed 'The North Star' with Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews and Walter Huston. Although the movie was a commercial success, it was seen by many as blatant Communist propaganda and would cause Milestone problems after the war.

'The Purple Heart' in 1944 was a successful war film about American pilots as Japanese prisoners of war and 'A Walk in the Sun' the following year hearks back to 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in its absence of patriotic rhetoric and its compassion for the ordinary soldier. In 1946 Milestone directed the superb film noir 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' starring Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in his first movie. The movie has a spectacular ending which was thought up by Milestone himself.

Career Decline

After a traditional patriotic war film 'Halls of Montezuma' in 1950, Milestone's movie career began to trail off and he never again reached his earlier heights. In the postwar period his career was undoubtedly affected by the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts. In 1949, he was blacklisted for his left wing associations of the 1930's and for the apparent pro-Communist leanings shown in his movie 'The North Star' of 1943. After 'Halls of Montezuma' he did no work for a year.

After several low budget failures, such as 'They Who Dare' in 1954, Milestone directed major Hollywood names in his last three movies. Gregory Peck in 'Pork Chop Hill' in 1959, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack in 1960 and Marlon Brando in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1962. None of the shoots were happy experiences as Milestone found himself more and more out of touch with the big egos he was directing. In 1962 Brando practically took over the directing duties from him.

End of Career

As movie work dried up, Milestone reluctantly took on some television direction, which he did not enjoy, starting in 1958 with 'Schlitz Playhouse' and continuing with 'Have Gun-Will Travel' in the same year and ending with 'Arrest and Trial' in 1963.

Also in 1963 he was scheduled to direct 'PT 109', a film about John F. Kennedy's wartime exploits but he was replaced after suffering a stroke. He was forced into retirement by his ill health and spent the last decade of his life confined to a wheelchair.


Milestone was a founding member of the Directors Guild and was one of the few major directors of the Golden Age to work as a freelance, refusing every opportunity to sign long-term contracts with the big studios.

He married actress, Kendall Lee in 1936. The marriage ended with her death in 1978.

Lewis Milestone died on September 25, 1980 in Los Angeles. He was aged 84.

Lewis Milestone Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Director (comedy) ... Two Arabian Knights (1929)
Best Director ... All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Director ... The Front Page (1931)

Lewis Milestone Filmography

The Toothbrush (Short)
Posture (Short)
Positive (Short)
Fit to Win
Seven Sinners
The Caveman
The New Klondike
Fine Manners (uncredited)
The Kid Brother (uncredited)
Two Arabian Knights
The Garden of Eden
Tempest (uncredited)
The Racket
New York Nights
The Front Page
Rain (uncredited)
Hallelujah, I'm a Tramp
The Captain Hates the Sea
Paris in Spring
The General Died at Dawn
1936 Anything Goes
The Night of Nights
Of Mice and Men