Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim
When I wrote about Letters from Iwo Jima, I referred to a formula for war movies that has been done to death, a sort of theme on which hundreds of directors have offered their own variations. As far as I know, that all comes from to All Quiet on the Western Front. In this masterpiece of the early talking picture era, the young recruits that serve as our protagonists go through all of the stages of dealing with war that their successors would go through, and for being the earliest film in this vein, it's possibly also the best.
The pacing is rapid at the beginning, and in the first fifteen minutes, the boys go from zealous optimism about joining the military to acceptance that the war isn't as fun as they thought it would be to the grim realization that their friends are dropping dead all around them. As the film wears on, there are moments of light – one young soldier, Paul, gets leave to go home and visit his mother, for example – but the overwhelming tone of the movie is darkness and depression. This is in stark contrast with the war films that would come in the decade to follow.
The most significant point for discussion regarding this movie is indeed how different it is than what would come out during World War II. Once the government started regulating the film industry more closely, war films usually served as propaganda. Even the classic Casablanca was ultimately an allegory for why isolationism was dead and the United States should get involved in the war. Coming out of World War I, however, the country was disillusioned by war, and All Quiet on the Western Front hit home hard. In fact, the film went so far as to keep its protagonists German as they were in the novel. Within ten years, Germans would be portrayed as bloodthirsty Huns, but in 1930, they were the same wide-eyed boys who went off to the battlefields and came back emotionally scarred. The disparity between this film and the output of the 1940s was so great that it was not permitted to be screened during the Second World War. Naturally, this makes it a better film than much of the propagandist output of the next decade. All Quiet on the Western Front doesn't pull any punches in portraying war as it truly is, and its anti-war message is rarely stated outright. Seeing what war is like is enough to make most people have a little bit of pacifist sentiment, and with advanced-for-their-time camera techniques and a great script, Lewis Milestone's masterpiece succeeds in just that.
The Good: The unblinking portrayal of war that was more graphic than anything that had been released up to 1930.
The Bad: Some of the scenes that do explicitly express distaste for war are a bit heavy-handed.
The Skinny: I'm shocked to see it this low on the list, honestly. I think Top 100 would be reasonable.