THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930)

In 1930, the third Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between August 1, 1929 and July 31, 1930, the awards took place on November 5, just a few months after the previous ceremony, in an effort to bring the awards to a more relevant time period. As such, 1930 holds the distinction as the only calendar year to feature two Academy Awards ceremonies.

The nominees:
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Big House

The Divorcee
The Love Parade

The winner:
All Quiet on the Western Front

An epic and haunting portrayal of war and its devastating effects, All Quiet on the Western Front is the relatively simple story of a group of German schoolboys who willingly enlist to fight in the First World War. Focusing on Paul Bäume (Lewis Ayres), the film chronicles the harrowing experiences of the naive young recruits, as the tragedy of war bellows around them.

Why did it win?
A masterpiece of the war genre, All Quiet on the Western Front is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s a deeply moving and powerfully emotional film that marks the first example of anti-war cinema. Ahead of its time with its messages about the perils and tragedy of war, the film is brutal in its depiction of a soldier’s experience on the battlefield, never shying away from showing the true nature of their experiences. War is hell, and this film perfectly encapsulates why.

It’s also a decidedly fresh perspective on the First World War, giving an insight into the German side of the battlelines. Never before has cinema shined a light on the obvious but forgotten notion that the German soldiers were mostly innocent young men as well, caught up in a war they played no part in starting but unwittingly find themselves stuck in the middle of.

With the introduction of sound, filmmakers took full advantage of this new technology, and none more so than this piece of cinema. The battle scenes feature groundbreaking sound design featuring ripping explosions, incessant gunfire, and the roar of the bombers overhead. Lewis Milestone’s genius direction sticks you right in the centre of each hellish scenario, and you feel like you’re right there on the front lines with the doomed German soldiers.

It’s a cinematic experience unlike anything Hollywood had produced before, and it’s no surprise the Academy were so taken by it. The film was a sensation, and received thunderous praise from critics, particularly for its unflinching depiction of a moment in history which had affected so many. It would also take home Best Director, the first film to win both categories which would soon become a staple of the Academy Awards. There was clearly no other choice but to award this film with Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
Not to get ahead of myself before the final rankings, but there are few films as deserving of Best Picture as All Quiet on the Western Front. It is indeed one of the greatest films ever made, and even 80-odd years later, it still remains as relevant and as timely as it was in 1930. The film is a harrowing account of war and the bleak reality faced by the brave young soldiers on the front lines. It truly defined a genre that would become a staple of Hollywood for decades to come.

The fact the film would ultimately be banned in Germany in the 1930s, after Hitler viewed the film as a threat to his propaganda efforts to encourage sentiments for his brewing war, shows what a cultural impact it had. The film would also be banned in Australia between 1930 and 1941, due to its anti-war message and the concern for the damage it could had on war-time conscription.

And that’s what sets this film apart and makes it so deserving – it’s decidedly anti-war. American cinema and popculture of the early 1900s were obsessed with conveying a positive and rosy image of war, consistently shying away from its true nature and the devastating experiences soldiers would live through. There’s no happy ending here. There’s no heroic victory for the characters. This is as real as war gets. And it’s a powerful piece of cinema unlike anything else of this era.

Taking out the film’s emotional impact, on a technical level, it’s also a masterpiece. Milestone’s direction is truly masterful, and he’s crafted something both beautiful and tragic. The film’s final scene, featuring a lone butterfly on the battlefield, is absolutely sublime, and a classic moment of cinema that you will never forget. Milestone utilises sound and image like few had before. Even by today’s standards, it’s a striking example of the work of a master director, and he’s stamped the film with an indelible style that few could rival.

With World War II on the horizon, you realise many young men watching this picture at the time would soon be facing the horrors of war themselves, in less than a decade. Just that notion makes this film that much more powerful. For the cultural impact it would have, and for its technical triumphs, All Quiet on the Western Front is indeed a deserving piece of cinema that can truly lay claim to the title of Best Picture.