Get back into the 1930s, and even some of the finest tend to creak a bit.
But return to that era when sound was just coming into vogue, and actors could still be seen occasionally emoting and speaking into birdcages and flower pots and things get worse.
As the second release in their 100th anniversary collection, we've been given Lewis Milestone's 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, a tale of young German students going off to The Great War. And the first Academy Award for Outstanding Production for Universal.
There are a handful of films that can truly be considered as "anti-war."
Paths of Glory was one.
Abel Gance's J'Accuse, both the silent as well as the sound 1937 version, were others. One could put together a short list.
These films were brilliantly anti-war.
All Quiet... may have been the first. And what an odd perspective to take for an American studio to show what had been our German enemies, caught up in a nationalistic fervor shadowed by every other nation, and not to show them in a negative light.
The question that many will be waiting to have answered, is precisely how has Universal, which came under a bit of discussion for detraining optical "push-ins" in To Kill a Mockingbird do with an 82 year old cinematic artifact?
The answer, at least to my eyes, is very, very well.
Let's go to the facts.
The original negative of the film (shot in 1929 and 1930) was incomplete and generally no longer useable. Of 14 reels, 6 survive, and of those 6, two were far too deteriorated to be of any use.
A decision was made, and for what it's worth, I concur, that the best plan of attack was too use a 1930 lavender, which had been donated to the Library of Congress for safekeeping. While one might think of this element as akin to a fine grain master, it wasn't. It was more like a print, but on a lavender based stock, which helped to hold back contrast. Grain had a tendency to come to the fore, rather than be toned down and softened as is seen with later stocks. You can see this easily on cut-in printer functions in the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty.
Before the decision was made to use the 82 year old element, every newer element was tested, and compared for quality.
Using the 1930 lavender as the basis of the restoration, digital technology was essential, and again, with minor exceptions, my feeling is that things were handled beautifully.
The gray scale is far better than I might have envisioned. Blacks have real body, and grain is pleasing. But just as important, we're presented with a stable, attractive image that doesn't bob, weave or flicker.
Everything was scanned at 4k, without pin-registration, as the element might have been damaged. The final workflow was performed at 2k.
MTI was used for image stabilization and dirt removal.
Grain management was performed via Relativity by Dark Energy. I like that name.
De-flickering was performed within Revival by DaVinci.
Scratch removal was performed via tools combining both MTI and Revival, as needed.
Multiple film tears, warping, and shifts were repaired using tools within the Fire, Inferno and Smoke bays by Autodesk.
The image had to be digitally stabilized, and de-flickered before any clean-up could be performed. Once that was accomplished both dirt and scratch removal could be used.
For the entire film, only two sections were harvested from alternate elements. The end title, which was not found to be proper in the lavender, and the Last Supper Allegory sequence in reel 5, in which the resolution was found to be superior in the LoC fine grain.
I like everything that was done to the film with a single exception. To my eye, grain manipulation affected some portions of the image, making things unstable. Please read that statement again, to understand it, and see the words "to my eye."
I'm willing to bet that out of the tens of thousands of people that will view this Blu-ray, less than ten will see any problem at all, and that statement is the one to go with.
When I'm critiquing a film of this caliber, with the amount of work that went into its restoration, I'm viewing it from a perspective that very few people will take. I have to be honest about what I'm seeing, or what I'm writing will be worthless.
Let's move to audio for a moment.
Two sets of nitrate optical track negatives were accessed from the LoC. They were transferred to 24-bit DA98HR at Chace Audio. 65 hours of manual processing were used to piece together the final monaural combine track.
And here's something that I actively applaud.
No one removed the highest bit of hiss from the track. The air is still in the track, and the highest frequencies are unaffected by any clean-up.
It's the bottom line that matters, and the it's really simple.
I don't believe that All Quiet on the Western Front has looked anywhere near this good since the early 1930s.
I've been very vocal about problems at Universal for the past year or so, but I couldn't be more pleased to see their tech division doing this kind of superlative work. I've a feeling that the bad old days at Universal may be over.
Let's go for something a bit new here, which will make these commentaries fit in a bit more cohesively with other on-line discussions. Where helpful and applicable, I'm going to begin giving stars. But stars based upon what something should look like, and how close it comes to fulfilling that requirement. The number of stars given a production are personal, and take into consideration the original quality of the work, as well as how it stand that "test of time."
All Quiet on the Western Front on Blu-ray from Universal receives 4 1/2 stars for image quality, 5 stars for audio, and 5 stars for the production. My only caveat on this entire Blu-ray was some very minor problems with grain and digital work.
As a major extra, and unfortunately, not in HD, is the original silent version of the film, as restored by The Library of Congress.
The bottom line. An extraordinary work of art that stands the test of time after over eight decades.
A gorgeous Blu-ray.
Very Highly Recommended.
Adding a final note:
All of the digital work that was performed on this project was necessary toward achieving a final product of high quality. In this case, for example, removal and replacement of grain was not something done on a whim. It was done to get around problems with the grain structure of the second generation surviving element.