Tuesday, February 14, 2017

All Quiet on the Western Front - Silent and Sound Versions

Universal's recent Blu-ray release of All Quiet on the Western Front is a notable effort, presenting a beautifully restored version of this powerful anti-war film, which is also frequently cited as one of the greatest achievements of the early sound era.

Like many transitional sound films, All Quiet was also released in a silent version, which has recently been restored by the Library of Congress and is presented as a special feature on the Blu-ray edition. These silent versions of sound films were typically prepared for theaters that were not yet wired for sound (though, curiously, many of them contained soundtracks with music and effects), or for foreign markets, where the intertitles could be replaced with translations in different languages.

All Quiet on the Western Front is unique in that, unlike many early talkies, it features a great deal of action, shot with a sweeping, fluid camera freed from the restrictions and limitations of recording sync sound. Director Lewis Milestone shot most of the battle scenes silent, with the soundtrack created in post-production, resulting in a vivid, dynamic rhythm of images that matches the best of those found in silent cinema.

It's not surprising, then, that All Quiet could be adapted fairly smoothly as a silent film, without losing too much of its impact. Calling this alternate version "silent", however, is a bit of a misnomer. There is remarkably little music on the soundtrack throughout, as there would be in a traditional silent film accompaniment. Instead, the images are complemented with the sound effects of machine gun fire, screaming, crowd noises and often -- quite effectively -- long stretches of silence, that only underline the sense of dread and terror in the scenes in the trenches.

There is a contingent that considers this silent version to be superior to the sound version, an argument I've read in more than one source suggesting that the pacing flows better when unencumbered by the sometimes declamatory and stilted dialogue. I would disagree; however. All Quiet on the Western Front is already fundamentally a silent film, its ideas conveyed through the power of its images. To strip it of its dialogue and turn it into a literal silent film is redundant.

It is certainly a wonderful thing that Universal has done in presenting both versions on Blu-ray, allowing viewers to make the comparison for themselves. I am glad the silent version is now available, but I view it as more of a curiosity, with the sound version remaining a powerful and impressive achievement.