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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 20 December 2010 00:00|
Films eligible for the second Academy Awards ceremony were released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. The ceremonies themselves, however, didn't take place until April 3, 1930 -- a full eight months after the end of eligibility.
In an effort to bring the ceremonies closer to end of the year's eligibility date, the third ceremony was held in November of 1930, only seven months after the second ceremony. As a result, 1930 receives the rather unique distinction of being the only time two Academy Awards ceremonies were held in the same calendar year.
The Best Picture winner of '29-30 was a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of German author and WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Told from the German perspective, both the film and novel chronicle the hardships faced by German soldiers on the battlefield and on the home front while on leave. The film was directed by Lewis Milestone, who also took home the award for Best Director that year.
With a budget of $1.25 million and extras that numbered in the thousands, the film was a major financial risk for Universal Pictures, given the stock market crash of October 1929. It proved to be a critical and financial success and remains one of the few early Best Picture winners still watched and appreciated by modern audiences.
The movie begins with the following epigraph pulled directly from the novel:
"This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war. . ."
Compare this with the epigraph with which the first Best Picture winner and fellow WWI film, Wings, began:
"On June 12, 1927, in Washington, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh paid simple tribute to those who fell in War. 'In that time,' he said, 'feats were performed and deeds accomplished which were far greater than any peace accomplishments of aviation.' For those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is dedicated."
Both movies feature the same war, but right from the opening epigraphs their creators take completely different approaches to storytelling.
Wings was a film promoted as being about the "Sensational Romance of the War Fliers!" -- a tagline that invokes not only the emotionally romantic elements of the film's narrative but also the romantic notions of war, adventure, and heroism hinted at in the Lindbergh quote. All Quiet, on the other hand, is a movie in which the main character describes war in the following manner, "We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That's all." WWI has been stripped of its romanticism to reveal the skeleton of death beneath.
Wings focused on the glories and triumphs of flying through sky during WWI. Lewis Milestone and All Quite focus on the utter horror and disillusionment of the soldiers fighting in the trenches.
Wings is an interesting example of a late silent-era blockbuster and The Broadway Melody is a flawed film from an industry experiencing major changes, but All Quiet on the Western Front is the first Best Picture winner to truly demonstrate the traits viewers have come to expect from an Oscar winning film: intellectual sophistication, technical mastery, emotional resonance, and artful nuance.
Unanimously recognized as a classic of cinema today, All Quiet also made a major impact in its day, when viewing audiences were only a dozen years removed from the events being depicted on screen. During the Academy Awards ceremony, it was even suggested that the film might win a Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, in Germany, members of the swiftly growing Nazi party strategically interrupted screenings (some accounts suggest they released rats into the theatres). When the Nazis came to power, the movie would be banned all together. Star Lewis Ayres' career took off thanks to the film, only to be destroyed when he maintained his pacifist stance upon the outbreak of WWII. All Quiet was more than entertainment. It was a work of art, a piece of political rhetoric, and a successful attempt at a realist representation of war on screen.
In its striving for realism, the film became one of the most violent American films of its time. Many critics mention the movie's gruesome images, such as a soldier's hands that remain hanging on barbed wire when the rest of him is blown away by a mortar. (Explicit depictions of violence would, for the most part, disappear from Hollywood altogether following the implementation of the Hays Production Code in 1934.)
The film remains of interest today not only because of its cinematic excellence, but because it doesn't beat the audience over the head with its central anti-war message; rather, it depicts with artful nuance how, for the young men who fought on both sides of the trenches in WWI, war was hell. It destroyed their minds and bodies and exposed them to horrors that those cheering them on back at home could never comprehend. As the film's protagonist, Paul, describes to a classroom of school boys eager to join the battle:
"Up at the front, you're alive or you're dead and that's all. And you can't fool anybody about that very long. And up there, we know we're lost and done for, whether we're dead or alive. Three years we've had of it, four years, and every day a year, and every night a century. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we're done for because you can't live that way and keep anything inside you."
If nothing else, Milestone's film works to erase the naïveté with which young men rush off to war, and, because of that, it is as relevant today, eighty years later, as it was when it was awarded Best Picture in 1930.
Next: Oscar's first Western to win Best Picture, Cimarron.
First Best Picture winner adapted from a novel.
Kevin Johns has contributed over 50 articles to (Cult)ure Magazine. He still can't believe A Beautiful Mind beat The Fellowship of the Ring for Best Picture. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and daughter. He can be reached at