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paths of glory

6 december 2010

Several great films are based on now-obscure novels. Laura, The Night of the Hunter, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate are known almost solely from their screen versions. In the case of Paths of Glory, Penguin Classics is trying to balance the scales by publishing and promoting a new paperback version of Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel.

It's common in film criticism to compare a movie to its literary source, but it seems kind of backward to compare a novel to a film derived from it decades later (long after its author's 1944 death). Yet since 1957 almost no-one has read Paths of Glory before seeing Stanley Kubrick's film. So a little back-comparison is necessary.

The film Paths of Glory was a star vehicle for Kirk Douglas, who also played a major part in producing it. In bringing Paths to the screen, Douglas, screenwriters Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, and writer/director Kubrick conflated several of Humphrey Cobb's characters into Colonel Dax, who figures much less prominently in the novel. Dax (played by Douglas) becomes the hero of a story that, in its inception, lacked heroes.

By contrast to Kubrick's version, Cobb's novel diffuses its attention among dozens of characters: some good, some evil, some weak, some callous. But it makes an attempt to understand them all, and none are wholly saintly or inhuman. In filming the story, Kubrick gave good and evil stark, precise locations (good in Douglas's Dax; evil in the unspeakable generals played by George Macready and Adolphe Menjou).

The novel Paths of Glory argues that wartime armies are corrupt, and that individuals in them cannot transcend that corruption. Colonel Dax, in the novel, is appalled by the execution of soldiers as scapegoats for their superiors' murderously poor judgment. But unlike Dax in the film, who is a fiery if Quixotic advocate for his men, the novel's Dax sets about carving himself away from responsibility. The novel doesn't condemn him for this evasion, if evasion it is. The novel's Dax may simply be a shade more realistic than the film's. Dax is an awfully good character by the standards of the novel Paths of Glory. But in Cobb's universe, even the good characters can't form a coherent critique of the massive evil in the military system. Still less can they actively resist it.

The most effective force for good in the book, Captain Renouart, gets his way through passive resistance. When asked to choose a man from his company to be court-martialed and shot, Renouart replies that none of his men are cowards, so none can be chosen. He then goes for a ride and stays out of touch all afternoon. (Fortunately long before the days of cell phones.)

Renouart washes his hands of his problem, and in doing so makes it go away. So does Pelletier, the artillery officer who refuses to shell his own trenches without a written order from his general. Though he's prevented an even worse massacre, Pelletier is too tired and stressed to become a whistle-blower. The best we can hope for, in Cobb's world, is to find a way of opting out. The system grinds along unchanged.

Novel and film end the same way, but in the film, the consciousness of injustice is personified in Douglas's searing performance. In Cobb's novel, as I've said, the effect is diffused: or rather, concentrated in the reader, who gains access to so many fragmentary consciousnesses in the course of the narrative.

Humphrey Cobb remains an obscure writer. The new Penguin edition of Paths reprints some material from his war diary, but its biographical information is sparse and adds little to the scraps that one can find on the Internet. There appears to be no Dictionary of Literary Biography article on Cobb, and there are certainly no books about him.

Perhaps most intriguing is the Penguin edition's assertion that Cobb published a second novel, called None But the Brave, in 1938. The book doesn't exist, though the limited information at Wikipedia and copied elsewhere on the Web suggests that the second novel was serialized in Collier's. (In fact, the Wikipedia article on Cobb contained a spurious link to a 1960s film called None But the Brave, which is wholly unrelated to Humphrey Cobb. It contained that error till I edited the page: I am not one to just wring my hands over disinformation on Wikipedia.) It's rare to come across such a literary mystery. I was going to add "any more," given that the Internet provides such instant access to data. But this is a case where the proliferation of information seems to have obscured reality: not unlike the way the "fog of war" operates in Paths of Glory.

Cobb, Humphrey. Paths of Glory. 1935. New York: Penguin, 2010.