All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Making of Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-Winning Masterpiece

Lewis Milestone’s anti-war picture All Quiet on the Western Front is recognized as his masterpiece, one of the most compelling dramatizations of soldiers in combat during The Great War.

Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 novel, Milestone conveyed cinematically the grim realism and anti-war themes that characterize the literary work.

Universal studio’s head of production Carl Laemmle Jr. bought the film rights to capitalize on the international success of Remarque’s book.

When he was preparing to shoot his wrenching anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front from the point of view of German schoolboys who become soldiers, Universal president Carl Laemmle pleaded with him for a “happy ending.”

Milestone replied, “I’ve got your happy ending. We’ll let the Germans win the war.”

All Quiet on the Western Front presents the war from the perspective of a unit of patriotic young German soldiers who become disillusioned at the horrors of trench warfare. Actor Lew Ayres portrays the naive and sensitive youth Paul Baumer.

In collaboration with screenwriters Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews and George Abbott, Milestone (uncredited) crafted a scenario and script that “reproduces the terse, tough dialogue” of Remarque’s novel, so as to “expose war for what it is, and not glorify it.”

Originally conceived as a silent film, Milestone filmed both a silent and a talkie version, shooting them together in sequence.

The most outstanding technical innovation of All Quiet on the Western Front is the success to which Milestone integrated the rudimentary sound technology of the early talkies with the advanced visual effects developed during the late silent era. Applying post-synchronization of the sound recordings, Milestone was at liberty to “shoot the way we’ve always shot…it was that simple. All the tracking shots were done with a silent camera.” In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Milestone uses tracking shots and sound effects to graphically show the devastating effects of artillery and machine guns on advancing troops.

The picture met with immense critical and popular approval, earning Best Picture Oscar and a second Best Director Oscar for Milestone.

All Quiet on the Western Front established Milestone as a genuine talent in the film industry.

Howard Hughes rewarded him with prime property: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur 1928 acclaimed play, The Front Page.