The Road Back
Directed byJames Whale
Screenplay byCharles Kenyon
R. C. Sherriff
Based onThe Road Back
by Erich Maria Remarque
Produced byEdmund Grainger
Charles R. Rogers
StarringJohn King
Richard Cromwell
Slim Summerville
Andy Devine
Noah Beery Jr.
CinematographyJohn J. Mescall
George Robinson
Edited byTed J. Kent
Charles Maynard
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
Universal Pictures
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • June 1, 1937 (1937-06-01)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Road Back is a 1937 American drama war film directed by James Whale, starring John King, Richard Cromwell, and Slim Summerville with a supporting cast featuring Andy Devine, Louise Fazenda, Noah Beery Jr., Lionel Atwill, Spring Byington, Al Shean, and an uncredited Dwight Frye. The screenplay is by Charles Kenyon and R. C. Sherriff from the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque.[2] Combining a strong anti-war message with prescient warnings about the rising dangers of the dictatorship of Nazi Germany, it was intended to be a powerful and controversial picture, and Universal entrusted it to their finest director, James Whale.[3]

The novel on which the film is based was banned by Nazi Germany. 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 Nazi 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.[4] 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.[3]

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.[5]


German soldiers who survived World War I on the Western Front struggle to adjust to civilian life in the months following the Armistice of 11 November 1918. One makes a fortunate marriage. Another is attacked while still wearing his uniform and medals by a gang of "socialists" and is saved from death by other men from his unit. Another discovers that the woman he believed was his fiancée has been cheating on him with a man who avoided military service and made a fortune as a war profiteer. At least some are experiencing what is now known as PTSD. All find that Germany changed tremendously while they were at the front.

The betrayed soldier kills the wealthy war profiteer and is tried for murder. Several of his fellow soldiers speak in his defense.



The film was budgeted at $800,000 but went over budget.[1]

Critical reception

Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times panned the film, calling it "an approximation of the novel; it is touched occasionally with the author's bleak spirit. But most of the time it goes its own Hollywooden-head way, playing up the comedy, melodramatizing rather than dramatizing, reaching at last toward a bafflingly inconclusive conclusion ... It is distressing to watch the mutilation of a great theme."[6] Variety called Whale's direction "excellent" but found the story "an emasculated scenario without a strong finish".[7] Harrison's Reports wrote that given the material, the producers "should have turned out a stirring dramatic account of the difficulties for men, just back from war, in readjusting themselves. Instead of dwelling on these difficulties and arousing the audience's sympathy, the producers saw fit to stress the comedy angle, and to such a point that it weakens the picture's dramatic quality."[8] John Mosher of The New Yorker thought the task of adapting the novel for the screen was a challenging one and gave Whale credit for handling some of the film's "difficulties with tact", but found the comedy element "confusing, almost embarrassing. Also it is definitely not German, and, along with the very American boys of the cast, the essential atmosphere is often bewildering. It's neither German nor anything else - just studio nether world."[9]

Writing for Night and Day in 1937, Graham Greene gave the film a poor review, describing it briefly as "an awful film, one big Mother's Day, celebrated by American youth, plump, adolescent faces with breaking sissy voices". Greene's chief complaint was of the American mischaracterization of German war experiences, and he noted that the film "might be funny if it wasn't horrifying. [-] America seeing the world in its own image".[10]

Sky Movies wrote, "a somewhat belated sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, Universal's critically and commercially acclaimed anti-war drama, The Road Back didn't enjoy the same success...The strong statement Whale wanted to make was seen by some reviewers, but this original cut was withdrawn. It's a shame the film hasn't been restored to its former glory as it would be as much a classic as its illustrious predecessor."[11] Leonard Maltin has called it a "heavy-handed sequel...interesting to watch but unsatisfying."[12] However, TV Guide noted, "some of Whale's film does show through...The battle scenes are still powerful, and a special traveling crane was developed to shoot them, a gadget the director was so enamored of that he used it throughout the film."[13]

Box office

Despite the film's negative reviews and production problems, it was one of the top-grossing films of 1936–37.[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b Dick, Bernard K. (2015). City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780813158891.
  2. ^ "The Road Back". BFI. Archived from the original on July 11, 2012.
  3. ^ a b "The Road Back (1937) - Trailers, Reviews, Synopsis, Showtimes and Cast - AllMovie". AllMovie.
  4. ^ a b "The Road Back (1937) - Notes -". Turner Classic Movies.
  5. ^ "Ci-Cl Archivo".
  6. ^ The New York Times Film Reviews, Volume 2: 1932-1938. New York: The New York Times & Arno Press. 1970. p. 1401.
  7. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. June 23, 1937. p. 12.
  8. ^ "The Road Back". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 107 July 3, 1937.
  9. ^ Mosher, John (June 26, 1937). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. pp. 70–71.
  10. ^ Greene, Graham (October 7, 1937). "The Road Back/Gangway". Night and Day. (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. Oxford University Press. pp. 172–173. ISBN 0192812866.)
  11. ^ "The Road Back". Find and Watch.
  12. ^ "The Road Back (1937) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies.
  13. ^ "The Road Back". TV Guide.