Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Road Back: original cut (2016 restoration Library of Congress)

The Road Back. Weil (Larry Blake) tries to persuade his former officer von Hagen (John Emery) not to shoot on hunger strikers. Von Hagen orders his comrade shot, and fire is opened on the demonstrators.

Paluutie / Vägen tillbaka.
    Director: James Whale. Year: 1937. Country: USA. Section: Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years (Part Two).
    Sog.: dal romanzo La via del ritorno di Erich Maria Remarque. [Der Weg zurück, 1931. Finnish translation: Paluutie, 1931 (Felix Brofeldt / Kirja]. Scen.: R. C. Sheriff, Charles Kenyon. F.: John J. Mescall, George Robinson. M.: Ted Kent. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Mus.: Dimitri Tiomkin.
    Int.: John King (Ernst), Richard Cromwell (Ludwig), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), Maurice Murphy (Albert), Andy Devine (Willy), Larry Blake (Weil), John Emery (Von Hagen), Henry Hunter (Bethke), Noah Beery Jr. (Wessling), Gene Garrick (Geisicke).
    Prod.: Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 101’. Bn
    Restored in 2016 by Library of Congress in collaboration with NBCUniversal and The Film Foundation, from a nitrate composite fine grain master positive preserved at NBCUniversal. The soundtrack was re-recorded by NBCUniversal StudioPost and DJ Audio. Special acknowledgments to David Stern.
    From: Library of Congress.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Cinema Jolly, 27 June 2017

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "A moderate success when it was first released in 1937, James Whale’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front was withdrawn and re-released by Universal in 1939, in a version heavily altered – with re-editing and the insertion of new scenes – to appeal to mounting anti-German sentiment. Whale’s understated drama about the difficulties and disappointments of soldiers returning home to a defeated nation had become a bluntly anti-Nazi propaganda film, one of several that year urging Americans to wake up to the mounting crisis in Europe."

"Although it has often been reported that The Road Back was cut in answer to protests from the German consul in Los Angeles, there is no evidence that this happened – and in fact the reissue version is far more caricatural in its portrayal of German officials than the original cut."

"That original 100 minute cut – unseen for decades – has now been reconstructed by the Library of Congress, and it reveals a nuanced, compassionate film, centered on a group of four men (John King, Richard Cromwell, Maurice Murphy and Slim Summerville, the latter continuing his role in All Quiet) who return to their native village to find it transfigured by anarchy, hunger and opportunism. When one of the boys shoots his ex-fiancée, whom he has found in the company of a notorious war profiteer, blame is placed on the government for training him to kill in the first place – a pacifist sentiment that itself would hardly be tolerated as the decade drew to its dark conclusion." – Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

Wikipedia: "The novel on which the film is based was banned during Nazi rule. When the film was made, Universal Pictures was threatened with a boycott of all their films by the German government unless the anti-Nazi sentiments in the script were watered down. Carl Laemmle and his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., the former heads of Universal, had recently been ousted by a corporate takeover. The new studio heads, fearing financial loss, caved in to German pressure and the film was partially reshot with another director, and the remainder extensively re-edited, leaving it a pale shadow of Whale's original intentions. To the director's further displeasure, writer Charles Kenyon was ordered to interject the script with comedy scenes between Andy Devine and Slim Summerville, which Whale found unsuitable. Disgusted with the studio's cowardice under its new management, Whale left Universal after completing Wives Under Suspicion, an unsuccessful remake of his own The Kiss Before the Mirror. He returned two years later to direct Green Hell, but never made another film for Universal after that."

"In the film Gods and Monsters, Whale (played by Ian McKellen) speaks of his hatred of making The Road Back, the film he intended to be the crowning achievement of his career."

AA: The Road Back was for me the highlight of Il Cinema Ritrovato. I had never before seen this film, the original version of which has been reconstructed and restored at Library of Congress last year. The film is topical as we are commemorating the centenary of WWI.

This stunning sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front also belongs to the greatest war films. It is also one of the powerful films were made in the 1930s from novels of Erich Maria Remarque. Besides All Quiet and The Road Back there was Three Comrades directed by Frank Borzage.

This "end of the war" film is also the best or one of the best films of James Whale, himself a war veteran who had debuted as a film director with a war movie, Journey's End, and followed it with another wartime story, Waterloo Bridge. Whale did not want to make any more war films, but one might view his Universal horror films as "shell shock films" in the same sense as Anton Kaes has interpreted Weimar cinema.

This story starts with the Armistice of Compiègne, 11 November 1918. The war ends but as soon as the demobilized German soldiers return home they face another war. There is a revolution in Germany. Soldiers' and workers' councils fight the establishment. Demobilized officers are attacked if they do not abandon uniforms and insignia. An epic climax is a violent crowd scene where government soldiers massacre demonstrators with machine guns.

In the story of the four demobilized friends the climax is Albert's story. Four years he has been looking forward to reunite with Lucy, but behind his back Lucy has been dating the arms dealer Bartscher, a profiteer. During a night at a restaurant, having tried in vain to find Lucy, Albert discovers her at a chambre séparée with the profiteer, shoots Bartscher calmly ("I know what I have done") and is convicted in a trial. His veteran friends defend him and return iron crosses to the judge. They testify that Albert's bullet was better put to use with Bartscher than during the entire war.

The action scenes are well staged.

The comic passages with Slim Summerville, Louise Fazenda and Andy Devine can be compared with farce scenes in John Ford's war films. There is sense in their nonsense. The comic figures are survivors thanks to their ability to face the absurd. They provide a counterweight to tragedy. Even Shakespeare understood this.

There is psychological insight in this "coming home" story. Families welcome sons warmly back home, only to witness them profoundly altered, in turmoil, a state of unrest and alienation. How was it in the war? "You've told us nothing". The war has ruined the boys. "You brought me a monster". "We went full of enthusiasm. We return silent". "My fighting isn't over. I must find myself".

The film is deeply moving. In the beginning a sense of camaraderie is established, what we call in Finland "kaveria ei jätetä" [never abandon your buddy / stand by your buddy]. A fatally wounded buddy is escorted to a hospital. The camaraderie is extended to the former enemy when demobilized soldiers meet U.S. troops ("what's the point of fighting such decent fellows"). James Whale catches the joy of freedom at happy armistice balls, emotional meetings at stations where overcrowded trains bring the veterans, family reunions and beautiful and awkward lovers' meetings.

When the veterans return to school boys have become men, but water guns confiscated four years ago are returned to them. 21 schoolmates have died. There is a parade of war invalids. The friends visit Giesicke, now confined to an insane asylum; in his mind still at war. But nobody has fully returned.

There is an opening and ending credit crawl. Today, this feature is famous from the Star Wars series and its parodies. George Lucas was inspired by Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, as well as Union Pacific by Cecil B. DeMille. This crawl may have been an invention at Universal for the Flash Gordon serial in 1936. The sense of "letters emerging from / disappearing into eternity" is meaningful here.

Ernst (John King) gives the most passionate speech at the court in defense of Albert, including in it a plea to "help us find the road back to peace". The four comrades have returned, but their world has vanished, they have themselves changed, and they have lost their schoolboy ideals and illusions of heroism. Yet Elsa (Jean Rouverol) stands by Ernst to the end and confesses to Ernst that he has made her understand. "You made me realize for the first time what it was like." "Maybe there is a road back. I wonder".

In memoriam Jean Rouverol, the bright actress and screenwriter who left us three months ago at age 100.

This screening clocked at 102 minutes and one second.

Brilliant visual quality in the restoration of a film shot daringly and ambitiously with dark and desolate sequences (the no-man's-land in the beginning, the menacing night scenes) by John J. Mescall and George Robinson.


As World War I ends, a remnant of the German army gathers together in the trenches behind the front lines, preparing for one final offensive. They attack and suffer many casualties, but manage to capture a French outpost just as the Armistice is signed.

As the soldiers begin their march home, they have little understanding of how their world has forever changed. Returning to Germany, they discover waves of revolution, as all officers in the army are demoted and the Kaiser flees the country.

Finally at home, Tjaden, Willy, Ernst and Ludwig encounter a mob, which attempts to tear off Ludwig's officer's stripes. The four men, though outnumbered, take on the mob and defeat it.

Ernst has a tearful reunion with his parents and his old sweetheart, Elsa, Ludwig's sister, until he realizes that she is still living in a Germany that no longer exists.

Tjaden stops a mob's attack on the butcher shop of Mayor, and receives the hand of Mayor's daughter Angelina as part of his reward.

Upon returning to school, the veterans find children in the place of their old classmates.

Albert, another veteran, is dismayed to learn that his fiancée Lucie, has been befriended by war profiteer Bartscher. While the couple quarrels, troops fire upon a group of hunger strikers.

Weil, one of the strikers, marches up to the captain of the troops, Von Hagen, and tells him that his troops are shooting down veterans. Von Hagen calmly orders his old comrade shot, and the crowd disperses when it is fired upon by machine guns.

After Tjaden's wedding, the old friends go to a cafe where Albert discovers Lucie in the company of Bartscher. Albert draws his revolver and coolly shoots Bartscher dead. At his trial, Albert's friends argue that the murder was not his fault, but that of the government, as Albert was trained for four years to kill men he never knew, and thus felt no restraint in killing a man who was doing him harm. Despite their pleas, Albert is found guilty.
As Ernst and Ludwig walk in the country, they come across a group of young boys doing military drills, no doubt preparing for the next war while still in the shadow of the last. The two men comment on the utter futility of it all as they walk away.

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