All Quiet on the Western Front.
This remake follows the 1930 adaptation fairly closely, although it substitutes some details, deletes and adds a couple of scenes, and it ends differently to both the book and the prior film. The casting is better, and so is the acting: you can’t go wrong with Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky, Donald Pleasance is a familiar face who does a decent job in the limited role of the schoolmaster, Patricia Neal ably updates the role of Frau Bäumer, and the actors who portray the young soldiers both look and act their parts believably. It was my only experience with seeing Richard Thomas act (I had never watched the television series he had been in), but like the casting of Daniel Radcliff in My Boy Jack, I suspect that Thomas’s casting as Paul Bäumer served to help his fans to separate him from a role he had played for several years.
We’ve all been disappointed by films that re-write the books they’re “based on.” As in the 1930 version, this film begins with the epigraph that appears at the start of the Wheen translation, which presumes to pontificate in a way that the text in the original German does not. In translations, interpretation is one thing, but interpolation of material that doesn’t exist in the original is another, and I don’t like it when a translator decides to become a co-author. The Murdoch translation does not commit that transgression in the epigraph.
Readers who have seen the bibliography and library page at the blog for my first novel are familiar with what a stickler I am for details, so it will come as no surprise that I have bones to pick with the wardrobe and props. For the most part, everything is authentic-looking enough, although the choice to opt for tunics in the style that didn’t have visible brass buttons or insignia made the costuming a little too feldgrau drab, for my taste.
In addition, the Kaiser’s getup was a trifle lackluster, compared with the photos in which he appears in full-dress bling. The casting of an actor who had two normal-sized arms could have been better managed, had he been cloaked in one of those dashing capes that Willy liked to wear, to disguise his shrunken arm.
Lastly, in the final scene, the cigarette Paul Bäumer smokes seems to exhibit anachronistic performance, because it burns continuously and produces a long, stable ash column. These are characteristics of modern tobacco and tubes that are manufactured with additives which encourage steady burning, and a paper structure that prevents the ash from falling apart. Earlier cigarettes, filled with plain tobacco and before advanced tube engineering, tended to extinguish when not subjected to continuous dragging, and the ash column would have been more delicate.
Because the 1930 rendition was filmed in black and white, it could get away with being photographed on sets with backdrops. The 1979 version was filmed in color, so it needed even more careful attention to detail, and it was filmed on location in Czechoslovakia. Its being in color may dilute its impact among viewers who are accustomed to a lifetime of lifelike cinematography, and although the street scenes, pyrotechnics, and gory battle footage are perfectly well done, the earlier film benefits from the “you are there” impression that its monochrome photography provides, simply by virtue of its resemblance to the period photos and documentary films we’re used to seeing.
That said, I believe the first film is overrated by those who regard it as a “masterpiece,” and that despite my personal pickiness, the second film is the better of the two. Have you seen them both? What do you think?