The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Picture and Best Director, and, in 1990, it was selected and preserved by the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." It was only the third film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and war veteran Lewis Milestone received his second Oscar for direction. Universal spent $1.25 million on the movie, a very high figure for the time, and it was a critical and financial success although not a runaway hit, earning $3 million in rentals on its initial release.
Interestingly, German censors passed the film despite violent protests by Nazi groups. In a cruel irony, Ayers's career was all but ruined by public condemnation of his stand as a conscientious objector in World War II, despite his heroic service as a medic rather than a combatant.
Undiminished by time (and restored in 1998), this magnificent anti-war film, the first of the sound era, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque's best-selling novel, is a landmark for its vivid depiction of the Great War's tragedy and futility from a German soldier's point of view, for its technically inventive, spectacular battle scenes (at the dawn of sound in film), and for its prescient denunciation of fanatic nationalism and militarism.
Lew Ayres, only 21 years old, became an international star for his beautifully natural performance as the schoolboy eager to serve but sadly and fatally disillusioned by the reality of war.
PlotLew Ayres plays Paul Baumer, a young German schoolboy who joins the German army after having his head filled with dreams of glory and patriotism by one of his schoolteachers. Once on the battlefield he discovers the true horror and futility of modern warfare and loses many of his comrades. He ends up a different young man, hardened and embittered.
The final shot - a close-up of his hand reaching out to a butterfly, quivering as a French sniper's gunshot cracks out and the hand falling still in death - is an amazingly poignant image. The whole film still has a major impact today.
The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Erich Maria Remarque called, in German, 'Im Westen nichts Neues', which literally means "nothing new in the West", a standard phrase used by the German army. The book was translated by Arthur Wesley Wheen and his translation of the title has justly become world famous and part of the English language.
In 1930 there were a great number of German Army veterans living in Los Angeles and many were recruited as bit players and technical advisers. In all around 2,000 extras were used during the production. Among them was future 'High Noon' director Fred Zinneman in the minor roles of a German soldier and a French ambulance driver.
The film featured numerous innovations which have since been copied by later directors. It was shot with two cameras side by side, with one negative edited as a sound film and the other edited as an "International Sound Version" for distribution in non-English speaking areas. It is one of the first sound films to use a mobile camera. At the time the camera was usually contained in a soundproof box to prevent the motor noise being heard on the soundtrack. Milestone achieved this by simply shooting his crane shots silent and adding the battle sounds later.
Also shot later during the editing phase, was the famous butterfly scene. As the actors were no longer available, Milestone used his own hand as Paul's.
No music was used in the film to avoid distracting the audience from the serious subject matter. Some movie theaters added their own music which displeased director Milestone immensely.
Future director George Cukor got one of his first film credits on the film. He was a well known stage director and was taken out of Broadway to be employed as a dialogue coach on the film with the specific job of lessening the regional dialects of the actors so that they would all sound as if they came from the same country.
Later directors would use some of Milestone's innovative techniques. For instance Stanley Kubrick in 'Paths of Glory' in 1957 used the cutting between soldiers dying and the weapons doing it, and Stephen Spielberg owned to Lewis Milestone's work being an influence on 'Saving Private Ryan' in 1988.
Main CastLew Ayres ... Paul Bäumer
Russell Gleason ... Mueller
Louis Wolheim ... Katczinsky
John Wray ... Himmelstoss
Raymond Griffith ... Gerard Duval
William Bakewell ... Albert
Scott Kolk ... Leer
Ben Alexander ... Kemmerick
Owen Davis jr. ... Peter
Harold Goodwin ... Detering
G. Pat Collins ... Lieutenant Bertinck
Arnold Lucy ... Professor Kantorek
Edmund Breese ... Herr Mayer
Beryl Mercer ... Mrs. Bäumer
Edwin Maxwell ... Mr. Bäumer
Yola D`Avril ... Suzanne
Bertha Mann ... Sister Libertine
Joan Marsh ... Poster Girl
Vince Barnett ... Cook
CreditsDirector ... Lewis Milestone
Producer ... Carl Laemmle Jr.
Other Crew ... George Cukor
Writers ... Erich Maria Remarque (novel), Maxwell Anderson (adaptation), George Abbott, Del Andrews
Music ... David Broekman
Cinematography ... Arthur Edeson
Distribution Company ... Universal Studios
Format ... B & W
Release Date ... 24 August 1930
Runtime ... 145 min (cut)
Academy Awards2 Wins:
Outstanding Production ... Universal
Best Director ... Lewis Milestone
2 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Cinematography ... Arthur Edeson
Writing ... George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews