Film: The Library of Congress is bringing the 1930 masterpiece 'All Quiet on the Western Front' back to life in a new print.


September 01, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Back in the early '70s, director Lewis Milestone was talking with a fan about his masterpiece, the classic anti-war film "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Nearly five decades had passed since that seminal film dominated the Academy Awards, saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy and began earning its reputation as one of the greatest movies of all time. Prints of "All Quiet" were suffering from nearly a half-century of accumulated cuts and scratches, of censors' attacks and ill-considered edits, of cheaply made copies and midnight showings on TV stations that really didn't care what it looked like.

Milestone, the winner of Best Director awards at two of the first three Oscar ceremonies, was asked about efforts to restore his film to its original glory.

"Better they should run clear leader through the projector and use their imaginations," the disgusted Milestone insisted. "There's nothing left of it."

Not necesarily.

David Parker sits back in his chair at the Library of Congress, smiling broadly and knowing better. "We hope to prove him wrong," he says simply.

Behind the desk of his third-floor office inside the library's Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, Parker is waiting for the day, probably later this month, when he and his staff can unveil their carefully preserved and restored print of "All Quiet" -- a project he's spearheaded as acting chief of the curatorial section of the library's film department. One brief scene, maybe 10 seconds long, still needs to be added after being obtained from a private collector in Great Britain. And the sound on one of the film's seven reels still needs be worked on.

Laboratory technicians in Dayton, Ohio, where much of the library's film collection is stored, have spent three years cleaning the film, working with every available print to try and locate lost scenes and restoring the soundtrack so people can hear the same bomb bursts and machine-gun fire theatergoers heard when the film first toured the country in 1930.

"All Quiet" is one of the most extensive film preservation projects undertaken by the library, where the goal is to copy its collection of old-style nitrate-based film before it deteriorates beyond the point of no return -- a fate that has befallen the majority of films made before 1930. Much of the library's day-to-day work involves so-called "orphan films," movies that never had the luxury of big-budget productions or major-movie-studio backing.

One of the few projects to match "All Quiet" was the preservation of "Coquette," a 1929 film that was Mary Pickford's first talking picture, and for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. But "Coquette," while historically significant, is a pretty awful film, so much so that the uproar over Pickford's Oscar caused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revise its voting procedures. "All Quiet," however, is an acknowledged masterpiece, certainly worthy of the effort put into preserving it.

A glorious print

And the result is glorious, a print that should knock the socks off anyone used to the well-worn versions generally seen on television. Comparing it to one of the best-known prints now available, a version shown frequently on the American Movie Classics cable television station (which contributed some $40,000 to the preservation project), is like comparing an optical lens to plastic left out in the sun a few years. The images are clearer, the contrast is better, the scratches are fewer (as in practically nonexistent), the frame larger (parts of the top and bottom that had been cropped out long ago are now visible), the sound crisper and clearer.

Details of how the newly restored print will be made available to the public have not been worked out; since AMC contributed to its restoration, the channel could end up showing the finished product, possibly as part of its annual film preservation festival.

Not that the AMC print already being shown is in awful shape. In fact, it's pretty good, pretty complete and perfectly watchable. The effect must be similar to what it was like seeing the Sistine Chapel ceiling before it was cleaned. What had been a piece of fine art before is revealed as the masterpiece it was meant to be.

"We think it's really going to be a remarkable-looking picture," says a delighted Parker.

It's already a remarkable movie. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), "All Quiet" is the story of a generation lost to war. Lew Ayres plays a young German student who, along with his entire class, joins the army. But what he finds on the western front during World War I is far from the honor and glory promised by his gung-ho professor back at school.

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