Sunday, February 19, 2012

WWI on Blu-ray: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) and WINGS (1927)

(US - 1930)

Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 anti-war novel was quickly made into a landmark Best Picture Oscar winner by director Lewis Milestone that's been restored for a new Blu-ray/DVD release.  This version is a major step up from past DVD editions, with a pristine HD transfer that makes the sweeping, muddy, bloody battle scenes even more powerful. 

The film follows a group of young German men, essentially boys in their late teens, cajoled into joining the Army for the "glory" of the Fatherland.  Of course, the message of Remarque's novel and Milestone's film is that there is no glory in war.  The men witness horrors beyond their imagination in some truly nightmarish trench battles that still manage to pack a wallop.  Everything is seen through the eyes of young Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), who sees his friends killed and is himself forced to kill.  It's a role that had a profound effect on Ayres, who became a pacifist in real life (in addition to being the screen's DR. KILDARE a decade later and the focus of one of the most unforgettable horror movie death scenes ever nearly 50 years later when his character drowned under ice in DAMIEN: OMEN II).  The young Ayres, just 21 years old here, looks like a young Edward Norton at times and believably conveys earnest innocence.  Looking at the film in 2012, Ayres is less convincing when he's required to play bitter and traumatized, but I think that's due more to the acting style of the early sound era than any weaknesses in Ayres' performance.  Well into the 1930s, early talkies went through some growing pains that are on full display in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, as actors accustomed to silents tried to make adjustments to their styles for sound (which explains a lot of the playing-to-the-back-row emoting), and filmmakers seemed afraid to use music during any dialogue-free stretches, resulting in a lot of static and dead air (if you haven't seen it lately, the Bela Lugosi DRACULA is one of the most egregious examples of this).  The film's best performance comes from reliable silent film character actor Louis Wolheim as Kat, Paul's fatherly soldier mentor (Wolheim, one of the unsung greats of early cinema, died of stomach cancer less than a year after this was released).  While the message remains powerful, and the battle sequences as harrowing as ever, a lot of the film is quite dry and even plodding, but must be put in its proper historical perspective.  This is a great and important film...it's just that, through no fault of its own, parts of it haven't aged gracefully.

One of the bonus features on the Blu-ray is the simultaneously-shot, mostly-silent version that was released in parts of Europe and also intended for American theaters that had not yet been outfitted for talkies (this was a common practice for a brief period).  Unseen for decades, it was unearthed by the Library of Congress for a Turner Classic Movies airing last year. It's a bit battered and isn't in HD, and utilizes some different takes and camera angles (it runs about 30 seconds shorter than the sound version), features more use of music, and has incidental sound (bombing, gunfire, the sound of marching, etc), just no spoken dialogue. In an essay inside the Blu-ray packaging, Leonard Maltin writes that some have found the silent version a better-paced film.  I didn't watch the silent version in its entirety, but what I saw seemed to play a bit better, considering these were actors and behind-the-scenes technicians not yet fully acclimated to working in talkies.  With the inclusion of both versions, and the classic sound version in stunning high-def, there is no doubt that this is the definitive package for ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. (Unrated, both versions 133 mins).

(US - 1927)

This silent classic and the first Best Picture Oscar winner is a grandiose epic in every sense of the word and remains a monumental achievement today.  I'm convinced that if a WWI story were made today, using the latest in CGI technology, that the aerial dogfight and battle sequences in this 85-year-old film would still look better.  There's a number of shots that you simply won't believe director William A. Wellman managed to pull off--not just in the air, but even in then-difficult tracking shots.  Though the story and some of the acting are a bit hokey at times (actors of the silent era had a tendency to overdo it), WINGS is a thrilling and emotional story of war, friendship, and loyalty that remains timeless.  The film follows two young men from the same town--David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers)--as they enlist and go off to become fighter pilots in The Great War.  They bond despite a rivalry over Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who loves David but doesn't want to hurt Jack.  Also in the mix is Mary (Clara Bow), the girl who lives next door to Jack's family and who's loved him since they were kids...but he doesn't even notice her.  Also appearing, and prominently billed in subsequent years, is a young Gary Cooper, who gets about three minutes of screen time as a doomed cadet.  By the time he says "When your time comes, then that's it," it's obvious he'll be dead within the next two minutes.  There's also some brief bits of pre-Code graphic violence and even some brief male nudity in a recruitment exam room, plus the infamous flash of a topless Bow (it's quick, and you'll need the pause button).  This is 1927, folks!  Damn Flappers and their loose morals...

Paramount's Blu-ray restoration is breathtaking, especially considering the original negative has been long lost.  Simply put, WINGS has never looked this good.  The Blu-ray offers two score options, but it should be noted that these are two different prints with different running times.  The option with a newly-recorded version of J.S. Zamecnik's original orchestral score runs 144 mins with a new, extended opening with the Paramount logos through the decades, sound effects throughout, an intermission card, and restoration credits.  The option with Gaylord Carter's pipe organ score runs 139 mins, opens with the 1927 Paramount logo, and has no intermission card or restoration credits.  The re-recording of the Zamecnik score with the sound effects is the default option.

In the relative infancy of movies, WINGS must've been quite an experience in 1927, and it still is today.  It's a bit overlong and top-billed (and utterly adorable) Bow, the legendary 1920s "It" Girl, isn't in it nearly enough, but this is a major piece of cinema history here, lovingly restored to its full splendor and a must-have for any serious cinephile. (Unrated, 144/139 mins).

No comments:

Post a Comment