To ensure authenticity, director Lewis Milestone instructed the studio to try to find out if there were any World War I German army veterans living in the Los Angeles area, so he could have them authenticate German uniforms, equipment, etc. So many were found that Milestone cast a lot of them as German officers in the film, and had them drill the extras playing German troops (the scene where they are laying communication wire in the forward trenches was led by a former German soldier whose job during the war was to do exactly that).
Nazi rabble rousers stormed screenings of the film in Germany, often releasing rats or stink bombs into the theaters, as the wounds of defeat in the First World War still ran deep. This led to the film ultimately being banned by the Nazi party. It wouldn't receive proper screenings in Germany until 1956, though it did play to packed houses in 1930 in neighboring Switzerland, France and the Netherlands with special trains and buses being laid on to transport Germans to screenings.
Final film of Raymond Griffith, who played the dying French soldier Gerard Duval stabbed by Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres). He had lost his voice through illness as a child. A popular silent-film star, the coming of sound meant the end of his career.
With the loss of limbs and gory deaths shown rather explicitly, this is undoubtedly the most violent American film of its time. This is because the Production Code was not strictly enforced until 1934, and also because Universal Pictures deemed the subject matter important enough to allow the violence to be seen. The scene where a soldier grabs a strand of barbed wire and then is blown up by an artillery shell, leaving only his hands still grabbing the barbed wire, was told to director Lewis Milestone by a former German soldier working as an extra, who saw that happen during a French attack on his position during the war. Milestone used it in the film.
The film was banned in Germany by Nazi Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick on the grounds that it ignominiously represented Germans as cowards. Ironically, in neighboring Poland, that country's censorship board proscribed the film on account of it's being "pro-German."
Lewis Milestone deliberately made the film without music so as not to take away from the seriousness of the subject. Much to his chagrin, however, some movie theaters added music in of their own choosing, as they weren't used to having films delivered to them without any form of background scoring.
Made for the then considerable sum of $1.25 million. The fact that production began only a few months after the 1929 stock-market crash puts into perspective the enormous gamble taken by Universal Pictures in making this film.
In his 2013 study. "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler", Harvard scholar Ben Urwand documents how the German riots against this film prompted Universal Pictures chief Carl Laemmle to agree to major cuts in the movie so it could be re-released in Germany.
The "International Sound Version", restored by the Library of Congress, premiered on Turner Classic Movies on September 28, 2011. This version (with intertitles in place of spoken dialogue, which could be easily replaced with foreign-language intertitles, and synchronized music and effects track) differed from the original silent version, which was prepared for theatres not equipped for any sound reproduction. The international sound version was included in the 2014 Blu-ray release, which also contained the restored edition of the original sound version.
In the first classroom scene, two phrases are written on the blackboard: 1. in Greek, correctly written, the beginning of the Odyssey - Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polytropon hos mala polla (the sentence breaks off, against grammar and sense); 2. Ovid, Remedia amoris, line 91 - Principiis obsta, sero medicina paratur (Resist the first elements [of passion]; it's too late when you resort to medicine). A third phrase appears at the end of the scene: Quidquid agis, prudenter agas et respice finem (Whatever you do, do it wisely and keep in mind your purpose), an anonymous traditional maxim with biblical echoes.
Zasu Pitts was originally cast as Mrs. Bäumer (mother of Lew Ayres' character Paul Bäumer). Only the preview audience saw the version with Pitts. Because she was more known for comedy, the audience reportedly began laughing when Pitts appeared onscreen. Consequently all her scenes were re-shot, with Pitts being replaced by Beryl Mercer. Contrary to long-standing rumor, she did not appear in the silent version of this film that was simultaneously produced and released for theaters not yet wired for sound; nor does she appear in the international sound version. However, she DOES appear briefly in the original 1930 trailer for the silent version, a scene of her in bed.
This film's opening prologue states: "This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war . . . "
Lewis Milestone's attention to detail--and desire to be as authentic as possible--was such that the chief sanitary inspector of Orange County, California, insisted that production be halted while he checked on the sanitary conditions of the trenches built for the film.
According to the reminiscences of director Lewis Milestone, audiences laughed when Zasu Pitts appeared as the mother in the original cut (sound version), and that is why he recast the role with Beryl Mercer.
Future director George Cukor, having recently been brought out from Broadway (where he was a renowned stage director), was employed as a dialogue coach on this film. His job was to lessen the regional dialects of the actors so that American audiences could more greatly identify with the characters.
The American Film Institute writes: "According to contemporary sources, the silent version with synchronized sound ran 15 reels. Var [Variety] reviewed the silent version when it opened in Paris in early Dec. 1930 under the title 'A L'Ouest Rien de Noveau'. The reviewer noted that a scene in which a French solider was killed in a foxhole was cut in the French release. Sequences with 'Zasu Pitts' as 'Paul's mother' were not in the sound version, which was viewed. In the sound version, Beryl Mercer portrayed the mother. The sound version was reduced to 10 reels for reissue in 1939."