All Quiet on the Western Front: The Message’s the Thing

Historical and political factors have always influenced the types of films and performances winning the Oscars. In other words, the social context, zeitgeist, and message are far more influential than the film’s artistic quality in determining the nominees and particularly winners.

From the first year, ideological considerations were taken into account. Carl Laemmle, head of Universal spent over one million dollars to film Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. A group of German schoolboys who enlist in the army at the outbreak of WWI and become disillusioned as they face the reality of combat. The American Legion and other organizations were concerned about the sympathetic portrayal of Germans, but the movie became both a critical and commercial success.

It was a prestige production: Lewis Milestone directed and Broadway’s noted playwrights, Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott, wrote the screenplay. All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four awards and won Best Picture. When Louis B. Mayer handed the Best Picture to All Quiet, he solemnly said: “There’s talk that the motion picture we honor tonight may win a Nobel Prize.”

Indeed, the League of Nations could make no better or nobler ambassador for peace than All Quiet or Warners’ pictures of the eras. Prime among them was Disraeli, for which George Arliss, billed as “the first gentleman of the talking screen,” and promoted by the studio as an important history lesson. Same could be said for the 1937 Oscar winner, The Story of Emile Zola, which, as noted also evidenced morality, respectability, and good taste, all the requirements–and qualities–that Will Hays, head of the industry’s self-censorship board, lectured about at the 1929 show.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback, 2003).