Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” adapted from the best-selling novel by Erich Maria Remarque, tells the story of young German men convinced by propaganda to join the valiant war effort, only to discover that World War I is a shameful, unending hell of psychological trauma, physical punishment, and death on an unfathomable scale. “All Quiet on the Western Front” remains, to this day, one of the few war films that never even accidentally makes war seem noble, and it features imagery and dialogue that still stings nearly 100 years later.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1931 — over impressive competition that’s aged very well, like the prison drama “The Big House” and the morality tale “The Divorcée” — and it made money. And fortunately for Hollywood, they didn’t even have to make up the sequel on their own. Remarque had already published a follow-up, “The Road Back,” in 1931, detailing the sad story of soldiers returning home from the war, changed men in a changed world.
For the sequel, Universal Pictures enlisted the director of some of their biggest hits. James Whale, who helped define a generation of horror movies with “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man,” and who had just expanded his impressive resumé with the hit musical “Showboat,” took the reins of the new war epic with a powerful imprimatur, and social commentary to spare. Ironically, a director who helped steer the studio away from war movies and into the horror realm would now be responsible for steering the studio back.
Then it all went really, really wrong.