Director Delbert Mann, who passed away in 2007, was one of those great pioneers of early dramatic television. Mann began his career in the late 1940s and saw success through the 1950s directing episodes of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, a weekly teleplay program of adapted classics and newer work that was being written by some of the best talents of the day such as Tad Mosel, David Shaw, and Paddy Chayefsky. In fact, Mann and Chayesfsky would team up in 1953 for the teleplay of “Marty,” the story of a lonely, unattractive, Brooklyn butcher who is desperate to find love. The original teleplay version had a talented young actor named Rod Steiger in the titular role, but when a film version was to be adapted two years later they went with the more experienced actor, Ernest Borgnine, to play the hapless lead. This choice in casting proved a good move, as the film was both a critical and commercial success, winning both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palm D’Or at Cannes in the same year, a feat that has only been done twice since in film history. Mann then spent most of the 1960s bizarrely making lighthearted and successful Hollywood bedroom comedies with Doris Day but would eventually return exclusively to directing television after his successful adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi” in 1968.
In the 1970s, television movies and miniseries were a real cultural phenomenon as cinemas were losing out to the growing television audience. Blockbusters would eventually start to change this in the coming decades, but there was still a real audience for serious drama that could be watched at home. First class Hollywood actors and directors were lured into making television movies and mini-series that drew incredible ratings such as: “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which starred Cicely Tyson, “The Execution of Private Slovik” which starred Martin Sheen and Ned Beatty and most notably the “Holocaust” mini-series which not only brought in A-list talent like Meryl Streep and James Woods but also raised the ante on the depiction of graphic violence on mainstream television. The brutal horrors of war shown in that NBC mini-series did not dissuade viewers from watching, so a year later in 1979, Mann embarked on a high budget television adaptation of the classic but brutal anti-war novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front” for CBS.
As in his days at The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Mann went with some bright young stars from television for his project, here in the form of Richard Thomas, the soft-voiced “John Boy” from the Waltons, he who would play the main character, “Paul Baumer,” from Erich Maria Remarque’s book. As a boy, I was a huge fan of The Waltons, so seeing Richard Thomas play anyone but John Boy was difficult for me but given that his character on The Waltons was a sensitive writer like Paul Baumer, for me it added to the sadness of what his character had to endure. For Paul Baumer’s mentor, Mann would also bring in his old friend from “Marty,” Ernest Borgnine, to play Stanislaus Katczinsky or Kat, the grizzled old hand who guides Paul through the grim reality of combat. Borgnine is excellent in this role and brings a real tough compassion to the character. Rounding out the cast would be the great actress of stage and screen, Patricia Neal, to play Paul’s dying mother and notable English actors, Sir Ian Holm, as the brutal yet cowardly sergeant “Himmelstoss” and Donald Pleasance, who gives an excellent portrayal of Kantorek, the school professor who fills the minds of Paul and his friends with thoughts of German superiority and heroism. Even with such an excellent cast that had been assembled, the adaptation must have been somewhat daunting for Mann as the original filmed version of the book, directed by Lewis Milestone in 1930, had won Best Picture and was widely regarded as a masterpiece by most critics.
Truthfully, Mann did not stray too far from Milestone’s original vision as far as the narrative but being that this production was almost fifty years later, Mann did have the ability to increase the visual expression of violence which he does to the degree that is more in line with Remarque’s book. The first time we see the grotesque horrors of trench warfare in Mann’s version, we immediately understand the futility of this war in a way that Milestone could not depict in 1930. Though the violence in the 1979 version is extremely unpleasant, it is never gratuitous and is there solely to drive the point home of the Paul’s heartbreaking experiences as a soldier during the “war to end all wars.”
I should say here that in 1978 I was in the fifth grade and we were all forced to read “All Quiet On The Western Front” by my pseudo-hippie teacher Ms. Lombardi (I say pseudo-hippie because the Catholic school I went to would only allow so much peace and love), but the book hit me hard. A year later in 1979, Mann’s film would be the first time I would see a book I read be made into a film which brought me great excitement though I feared what I would see. It would be worse than I expected as Mann harshly depicts the tragic scenes that one can never forget, such as the key moment when Paul sorrowfully regrets the bayonetting a French soldier who he must then stay with during a shelling barrage, or the moment when a young recruit is fatally poisoned while trying to retrieve his helmet in a trench filled with mustard gas. Then there is the saddest moment of the film in my opinion, when Paul realizes that he has carried his wounded friend Kat to an aid station to only find out that his friend had been dead for some time. Mann and his cast do great justice to the book and even though the film won an Emmy, some critics argued the necessity of another filmed version of this book, but to be honest, there had been another World War, Korea, and Vietnam since the Milestone film in 1930 so I feel strongly that even though Mann’s version may not be as artful as the original, it was very necessary to make a more relevant version for my violence-numbed generation.
Mann’s “All Quiet On The Western Front” was edited down from 150 minutes to 129 minutes for a European theatrical release in 1979 and for a while that was the only version available on DVD. Thankfully in 2009, a UK Blu-Ray was released of the film in its full 150 minute version so that you can see for yourself the masterful adaptation of great novel by one of the true talents from the golden age of television, the late Delbert Mann.