Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"All Quite On The Western Front". A Review Of The 1930 Film – Now Fully Restored And Reissued On Blu Ray In 2012 for Universal’s 100th Anniversary.

"...Neither An Account…Nor A Confession…"

In April 2012 Universal Studios is 100 years old - and to celebrate that movie-making centenary - they've had 13 of their most-celebrated films fully restored for BLU RAY. But it doesn't stop there. As many as 80 other titles will be given re-launches across the year as well each featuring distinctive "100th Anniversary" gatefold card-wrap packaging and in some cases a host of new features. Most (not all) of these re-issues will be two-disc sets containing the Blu Ray, the DVD and also means to obtain a Digital Copy via download.

1930's "All Quiet On The Western Front" is one of the thirteen singled out for full restoration (see list below) - and age hasn’t diminished its anti-war punch one jot. If anything this incredible new restoration finally gives this black and white masterpiece the care and attention it so thoroughly deserves.

US released 14 February 2012 (13 February in the UK) - it comes in a gorgeous limited edition 'book pack' (Barcode 5050582882773). The outer hardback holder has a card-pouch wrapped around it at the base and a 40-page booklet contained within. The book has a two-page preamble by American film historian and chronicler Howard Maltin followed by biog pages on Lewis Milestone the Director – whose other credits include "The Front Page" 1931, "Of Mice And Men" 1939, "Ocean's Eleven" 1960 and "Mutiny On The Bounty" 1962. Each of the principal actors is featured accompanied by a classy black and white photo. Unknown at the time - Lew Ayers played the disillusioned German soldier Paul Baumer - a burly and gruff Lewis Wolheim played Sergeant Katczinsky who fathers it over the rookie platoon - and wizened-up Arnold Lucy played the rabid almost Nazi-like teacher Kantorek - who whips the young idealists of his 'beloved class' into patriotic 'Fatherland' frenzy with a mixture of bullied-guilt and sly wording. There are some 'Not In Picture' stills from deleted scenes, pages of press clippings and telegrams… It's a visual feast and Universal are to be praised for it. But the real fireworks comes in the glorious new print...

Digitally remastered and Fully Restored from Original Film Elements - Universal are reputed to have stumped-up over $300,000 for the restoration - and the results are BEAUTIFUL. First up is the picture quality – when you see what it did look like before (covered in lines and scratches) – the new print is little short of miraculous. Lines, tears, blocking, flickering and rips in the negative – have all been repaired. Women buying flowers to throw at the troops marching through city streets at the beginning – the recruits exiting a train at the front when the town gets shelled - Katczinsky stealing a pig carcass at night in the rain – it all looks amazing. It isn’t perfect by any means – there are occasional scuffs and grain – but mostly the depictions of war are so authentic and the print so clean - that it feels like you’re eavesdropping on actual historical footage. And the sound is expertly woven in too – hiss gone, crackle - the voices now expressive and clear. Then you also notice the complete lack of music - which adds an almost eerie and maniacal feel to many of the scenes – especially in the trenches and bunkers where the soldiers are slowly losing it after days of shelling and starvation. An exemplary job done.

Unfortunately - after the copious amount of quality extras on “To Kill A Mockingbird” (which sent that release into the stratosphere – see separate review) the extras here are frankly a major let down. The 'Introduction' by Robert Osborne turns out to be barely two and half minutes long - but it's followed by The Library of Congress 'Silent Version' of the film (with word cards replacing the dialogue) which does at least show you how bad the original print was.
The two 'Universal' features are very interesting (and indeed informative) – but as generic titles to the series, they'll be on all releases and don’t advance this one. What was needed here was a dedicated 'Making Of' – and it's a very real let down not having it…

The movie itself has entered into folklore – based on the 1929 novel "Im Westen Nichts Neues" by Erich Remarque – he was a German World War One veteran who joined the Rhineland front in 1914 (his book's prologue printed on screen at the beginning of the movie titles this review). The adapted screenplay involved as many as 8 experienced writers including Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott. The huge production utilized the fearless skill of Arthur Edeson as principal cameraman and cost 1.5 million dollars to make – a staggering amount of money for the time.

Some scenes are seared into the memory – the transformation from youthful exuberance to terror as the new arrivals dig trenches and cut their hands on barbed wire to the muzzle flashes of artillery in the distance - the machine guns panning left to right as they mow down soldier after soldier in No Man’s Land on yet another pointless assault – Baumer trapped in a bomb crater haunted by the look of the young boy he’s just killed.

Being so old though, it’s not without problems. With talkies only beginning – it has to be said that some of the acting is seriously hammy – a throw back to silent films where over exaggeration was the way to get noticed. But it doesn’t stop the set pieces from being unnerving. We get the training 'before' they went to war where the men are brutalized ("Full Metal Jacket" really fleshed this out). On the other side of the coin we get the brief moments of elation and humanity - an officer lets the famished men have two rations of food instead of one despite a cook’s clumsy protests – laughing, flirting and swimming with the local farm girls in the moonlight.

To get authenticity they even brought in a German drill Sergeant who put 50 extras through their paces – callisthenics, marching, drill, discharging and maintaining arms – just as it would have been in the Hell Hole of the trenches. It was money well spent – "All Quiet On The Western Front" wowed audiences and critics alike and won Universal their 1st Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930. Director Lewis Milestone also received the Academy Award and there were nominations in two other categories – Cinematography and Writing. Its anti-war message has been a subject of scholarly debate ever since.

"All Quiet On The Western Front" and "To Kill A Mockingbird" are amongst the first vanguard of these 'restored' releases – and they’re superbly done. It's heartening to see Universal Studios finally throw some proper money at the preservation of its movie legacy - and be proud about doing so too. I for one will collect the whole series - and live in hope that other studios respect their past in the same glorious way.

To sum up - despite the lack of a documentary on the making of the film – this is an absolutely first-class release because the money's been spent on what matters – bettering and preserving the print for posterity. It won't be everyone's idea of a nice afternoon in – but that was of course the point – and "All Quiet On The Western Front" has proved its point very well for over 80-years. Impressive to say the least…

BLU RAY Specifications:
EXTRAS:
1. "Introduction By Film Historian Robert Osborne"
2. "All Quiet On The Western Front (Silent Version)"
3. "Theatrical Trailer"
(Blu RAY Exclusives)
3. "100 Years Of Universal Academy Award Winners"
4. "100 Years Of Universal: Restoring The Classics" - An in-depth look at the intricate process of preserving the studio's film legacy by those involved
5. Pocket Blu - download content to your Smartphone and Tablet

VIDEO: 1080p High-Definition Full Frame 1.33:1
(Print Digitally Remastered and Fully Restored from Original Film Elements)
AUDIO: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese DTS Mono 2.0
SUBTITLES: English SDH, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, Traditional Mandarin

PS: The 13 'restored' Blu Ray titles in Universal's 100th Anniversary series are:

1. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930). Released 13 Feb 2012 in the UK. Restored, Remastered and a beautiful 40-page book pack...
2. The Birds (1963). Release date to be advised. Restoration, remastering and packaging probably as per 1...
3. Abbott And Costello's Buck Privates (1941). The Blu Ray is USA released 17 April 2012 (see Amazon.com for artwork) - a 2-disc "Collector's Edition" with Blu Ray, DVD and Digital Copy. It's fully restored, digitally remastered and in a book pack.
4. Dracula (1931). Release date to be advised. Restoration, remastering and packaging probably as per 1. Will include both English and Spanish versions.
5. E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Release date to be advised.
6. Frankenstein (1931). Release date to be advised. Restoration and remastering as per 1 above, packaging probably the same...
7. The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Sequel that's better than the 1931 original - release date yet to be advised and will probably be in the same packaging as "Western Front" and "Mockingbird"...
8. Jaws (1975). And about time too - Spielberg's masterful 1975 shark-movie finally gets to Blu Ray. Release date to be advised (probably June 2012) and as above....
9. Out Of Africa (1985). Many will be pleased to see this picturesque romance finally get the Blu Ray makeover. 6 March 2012 release in the States.
10. Pillow Talk (1959). 7 May 2012 UK release - two-disc set - Blu Ray, DVD and Digital Copy. Fully Restored and Digitally Remastered. In a beautiful book pack.
11. Schindler's List (1993). Release date to be advised. Restoration and remastering as above, packaging probably the same...
12. The Sting (1973). Release date to be advised. Restoration and remastering as above, packaging probably the same.
13. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) 10 January 2012 - reviewed above.

PPS: For a list of the 60 or so titles in the "100th Anniversary" series see the 'comment' section attached to this review

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