Lew Ayres plays one of the students and is the unofficial leader of the group. In the earliest scenes of the film it is more of ensemble in that it basically has all of the men bunched together in their mutual journey into first becoming soldiers. Ayres at first is just one of them even if he is kinda in the center of many of the shots involving them, but he is technically just part of the group. Ayres does well within this set limitation found in these scenes. He's mostly reduced to a few reactions here and there which are considerably more effective than his comrades who are a bit on the theatrical side. These scenes don't last too long though once they have their first battle and the men start dropping like flies. The film then tightens its focus onto Paul's personal journey form one of the unknowing volunteers to learning to deal with the truth of the war.
Ayres shifts rather interestingly as it seems he's almost going to give a more typical performance from these early sound films which were often over enthusiastic and overcooked when they were not bland. It seems at first that Ayres might partially be in that vein here in his earliest scenes as he's with the other men who are very excited to be part of the army. This seems to be an intentional move on Ayres's part since it does suggest the blind foolishness of the men's view. Ayres intentions seems to be most evident though when he becomes the focus because Ayres is extremely effective in wiping away any idea of the romantic war hero. The thing is he does not even become the hero to the men in this troublesome circumstance really he just goes about being the war while trying not to be killed while also trying his best to do such things as find a decent meal which are sparse found for the soldiers.
Ayres earns the perspective shift as he tries to make the most out of becoming the lead. His first scene where he really gets an especially strong focus is when one of his fellow students is lying on his death bed. There is such a power in Ayres's face in the scene as he portrays the sudden moment where he finally seems to understand the death bluntly by hearing that his friend has always been determined to die by the medical staff. He's again fantastic when he goes to tell the other men about it and he for the moment how he feels about the death. Although it was an intense sadness that Ayres reflected at first, it's interesting as this is not the primary emotion when talking about it. Instead Ayres expresses the confusion of emotions that are going through in Paul at the moment. Sadness is still there, but there is also an odd enthusiasm as Paul also seems to revealing in that for the time he seems to appreciate life, and what it entails, all the more.
One of Ayres's best scenes is when he finds himself stuck in a hole between the two enemy lines, avoiding the bullets from both sides. Unfortunately a soldier from the opposing side eventually jumps into the hole with him. This causes Paul to stab the man to death in a brutally visceral scene. Ayres amplifies this incredibly well by starting with that violence fueled with fear as he ends the man's life. Ayres though is heartbreaking as he shifts away from that violence to Paul having the moment of realizing what it is that he has done. Ayres creates an overpowering feeling of regret and anguish as Paul comes to terms with what he has done, and curses out the war that brought them to this place. It is outstanding scene and Ayres's work contributes greatly as he portrays the way an inhumane action can come from a man who is humane in nature.
Ayres does a tremendous transformation from the glory seeking young man to a bitter soldier. What I find perhaps the most compelling is the way Ayres portrays Paul when he returns home for leave. Paul does not lash out everyone remarking about what should be done. Instead Ayres plays it as though Paul is withdrawn from this false reality being firmly knowing the truth and barely operate in the falseness. The one place where he does break down is listening to his old teacher again. Ayres does not portray it as a passionate hero speaking for his cause, but very effectively as a broken man lashing out at the lie that made him that way. Ayres leaves the end of Paul's journey as hopeless as the war. There is no goal even in his realization of the uselessness since it appears there is nothing he can do about it. The final moments of his performance are particularly poignant. As Paul see a last thing of beauty in the butterfly there is one last glimpse of hope that Ayres expresses beautifully in his face, but like the butterfly it tragically is but a false hope.
- Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front
- Louis Wolheim in Danger Lights
- Oliver Hardy in Another Fine Mess
- Stan Laurel in Another Fine Mess
- Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel
- Walter Huston in Abraham Lincoln
- Basil Rathbone in Sin Takes a Holiday
- Joel McCrea in The Silver Horde
- John Wayne in The Big Trail
- Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case
- Charles Farrell in City Girl
- Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond
- Douglas Fairbanks in Reaching For the Moon
- Gary Cooper in Morocco
- Chester Morris in The Big House
- Kenneth McKenna in Sin Takes a Holiday
- George Arliss in The Green Goddess
- Robert Armstrong in Danger Lights
- Ralph Forbes in The Green Goddess
- Bert Wheeler in Hook, Line and Sinker
- James Hall in Hell's Angels
- Robert Woolsey in Hook, Line and Sinker
- Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels
- Robert Montgomery in The Big House
Wolheim on one side is that harsh reality that Katczinsky should be. He does not appear to be some noble hero that they might have envisioned as being a seasoned soldier of the war. Wolheim is brilliantly blunt in his performance as there is nothing presumptuous about the way he carries himself as Katczinsky. Wolheim creates a terrific depiction of just a to the point cynicism. Wolheim does not portray Katczinsky as someone who is making any grandstanding speeches about the war, or trying to show himself as somehow better than the men who stick their heads out. Wolheim instead shows him to know that he's basically a work horse for the army, and there is no desire for a false glory promised him. Katczinsky has clearly been in the conflict for a long time and that is reflected so well in Wolheim's hard bitten portrayal. There's no ceremony or pretension in Wolheim's portrayal, just simply a man who knows how best to survive and is doing as such.
What is amazing though is Wolheim is actually the most comforting part of the film. Wolheim is able to present Katczinsky's view of the war as actually a strong wisdom. Wolheim is great in the scene where he is moving the men towards the line the first time and gives them the lowdown on the different types of mortar fire. Wolheim handles the scene with some humor and a surprising bit of heart as Katczinsky attempts to impart his wisdom on the men. Wolheim's delivery is amusing as he is that of the wise mentor telling them about the sounds of the far away mortars and the ones you actually have to worry about. In addition though there is a sense of the concern that Katczinsky suggesting that the man would much rather see the men live rather than die, even if he knows that most of them are going to die. Wolheim is particularly moving in a brief moment where Katczinsky quietly comforts a man who wet himself after they had to hit the ground due to mortar fire.
Wolheim throughout of the rest of the film offers some relief by showing this man who has found his place in the war proceedings and puts everything as simply as possible. I particularly love when he kinda berates Paul for yelling at a driver for driving poorly reminding Paul that if they got broken legs they'd be sent home. Wolheim makes such a pivotal impact with his performance that when he does make his exit in the film it does seem as though all hope is lost. It is unfortunate to have to note that Louis Wolheim died, from apparently stomach cancer, only a year after the release of this film in 1931. If this performance, and the other work that I have seen from him were any indication he would likely have had an extremely successful career well into the sound era. In this film as well as the others he does seem like an actor from another era compared to so many of his co-stars. In an era where supporting characters where often thin caricatures, Wolheim realizes a Stanislaus Katczinsky as man, and gives a truly memorable portrait of a soldier who knows he's in a pointless war.
- Louis Wolheim in All Quiet on the Western Front
- Louis Wolheim in The Silver Horde
- Fredric March in The Royal Family of Broadway
- George F. Marion in The Bishop Murder Case
- James Finlayson in Another Fine Mess
- Edward Everett Horton in Reaching For the Moon
- Richard Alexander in The City Girl
- Roland Young in The Bishop Murder Case
- Arnold Lucy in All Quiet on the Western Front
- Tyrone Power in The Big Trail