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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (part two)

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HCHumphrey Cobb (left)  was born on 5th September 1899, in Siena, Italy. His mother was a doctor, and his father was an artist. He was sent to England for his early schooling, but then received his secondary education in America. After being expelled from high school in 1916, he decided to join the Canadian Army and was sent to Europe to fight. Remember that America did not join the war until 1917. He kept a war diary, and October 1917 has him at Shoreham Camp, in Sussex, as part of the 23rd Canadian Reserve battalion. January of 1918 has him near Hill 70, in front of Loos. He describes the death of a friend from his platoon.
“What happened to Young, no-one ever knew for sure. Some thought a Fritz potato masher had landed on his respirator and that it had exploded just as he was brushing it off. Evidence: face blown in and right hand blown off. “
He saw the war out, and after being stationed in post-war Cologne for a spell, he finally arrived back in Montreal on 31st May 1919.

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164644The years after The Great War saw Cobb involved in a variety of enterprises. He wrote Paths of Glory while working for Gallup, the advertising and polling company, and it was published in 1935 by The Viking Press. It is believed that Cobb took the core of his story from real events on the Marne front, where for Corporals from the 136th Regiment were executed after a failed attack on a German strong-point near Souain.

So how does the book stand when set alongside the film? Firstly, it has to be said that Cobb died in 1944, so any input from him was clearly impossible. Anecdote has it that Kubrick had read the book as a teenager, and had been deeply affected by it, but a chain of events led to the film screenplay differing in one essential element from the book. In the mid 1950s Kubrick was still an emerging talent as a director, and did not have the clout to persuade big studios to put up the money for an anti-war film, made in black and white. The crucial intervention came with the interest (and influence) of Kirk Douglas. The star clearly had to have a main part in the film, but who?

In the novel, Colonel Dax is a relatively peripheral figure who, reluctantly, goes along with the doomed plan to storm the German bastion which is, incidentally, called ‘The Pimple” in the novel. So, it was a bold stroke in one way for Kubrick to re-imagine Dax as the forthright and confrontational character whose personal bravery is never in doubt, and a man who just happens to have been a lawyer in civilian life. And who better to play Dax than the dimple-chinned Hollywood heart-throb Kirk Douglas?

Cobb focuses almost all of his attention in the novel on the three men who were executed, and on the various reasons why they came to be shot by their own comrades. The book has no pantomime villains, and certainly no one person who has the blood of the victims on his hands. The men die as a result of the inexorable grinding of the military machine and the numbing effect of battlefield casualty statistics. Men are reduced to numbers, compassion is subverted by casualty statistics, and procedure trumps initiative every time. As William Tecumseh Sherman may (or may not) have said, I tell you, war is Hell!

Screen Shot 2020-12-01 at 20.21.47There are places where Kubrick and his screenwriters – Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson – did stick close to the book. The first is with the three man patrol into No Man’s Land where the cowardly and drunken Lieutenant causes the death of one of the men, thus setting up the selection of the other to be one of the judicial victims. The film plays it pretty straight, too with the events immediately prior to the execution. The character of Private Ferol is played with characteristic bravura by Timothy Carey, (right) There is one crucial difference; in the book, Ferol is chosen because he he is anti-social and widely disliked for his unpleasant behaviour, and he continues to be sarcastic and foul-mouthed right up to the point where he is strapped to the execution post. In the film, however, the enormity of his fate finally overwhelms him, and he in the unforgettable procession from the chateau to the place of execution – a chilling via dolorosa – he is reduced to a weeping, stumbling figure, clutching the arm of the Padre.

The final confrontation between Dax and the general doesn’t happen in the book, neither does the powerful final scene where the soldiers in the estaminet boo and mock the captured German girl who is forced to sing to them, but then they are reduced first to silence, with some in tears, and then they join in with the simple old song she is singing. Outside, Dax has just been told that the regiment has been ordered to return to the Trenches, but he walks away, leaving his men to their brief hour of peace.

It is worth repeating that Cobb’s gaze is focused on the rigid mechanism of army life. It whirrs, ticks and chimes the hours with little regard for the human lives caught up in its cogs. He shapes this in many different ways, but never better than when he describes the efforts made to make sure the execution is done ‘properly’.

“Regimental Sergeant-Major Boulanger was there, busy, competent as regimental sergeant-majors always are, in the same way that head waiters are busy, competent, or seem to be so, if they are good head waiters.”

It is to Boulanger that Cobb gives the very last action, in the last paragraph of the book, where he is given the task of administering the coup de grace to the bodies slumped against their posts.

“It must be said of Boulanger that he had some instinct for the decency of things, for, when he came to Langlois, his first thought and act was to free him from the shocking and abject pose he was in before putting an end to any life that might be clinging to him. His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into a brain that was already dead.”

I think that Kubrick (below) takes the gist of the novel, and shaped it to his own ends, and in doing so created a magnificent piece of cinema. His anti-war message is different from Cobb’s, but was clearly something he felt very deeply. A decade or so later he was able to return to his theme in Dr Strangelove, but this time he used satire and the comedy of the absurd to make his point.

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THE ADVERSARY … Between the covers

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The bare – and true – facts are these. Jean-Claude Romand, the son of a well-to-do forestry official in the Jura region of France went off to study medicine. He never took any exams, but fooled his parents and university administrators into believing that he was – for years – on the verge of qualifying as a doctor. He pronounced himself a fully accredited physician. He married, had two children, and went to work for the World Health Organisation as a researcher into the causes and treatment of arteriosclerosis. As his career developed he became closely connected with several important figures in the world of international politics and medicine. His was a glittering career, except for one small problem. It was all a fantasy. He never qualified. There was no job. No connections with influential decision makers. No international conferences in exotic locations.

The AdversaryTo this farrago of lies and deception add fraud on a grand scale. Romand was able to keep himself and his family in relative prosperity by claiming that he had access to investment opportunities which would pay handsome dividends to those fortunate enough to be ‘in the know’. He relieved relatives and members of his wider family of hundreds of thousands of French francs – every one of which went into his numerous personal bank accounts. Separating his mistress and her vast personal fortune was his undoing. She was sharp enough – eventually – to call him out and, with his fantasy world on the verge of unraveling, Romand, on an icy weekend in January 1993, killed his wife, two children, and both of his parents.


Jean Claude Romand
is portrayed as a shabby Prospero, and the Caliban he commands is a breathtaking fantasy world of warped imagination and fraud. Such was his belief in his own plausibility – and the gullibility of others – that he had one final trick to play. He returned to his house (and the cold corpses of his family) and set it on fire. Suicide in a fit of remorse? Carrère – and the French criminal justice system – thought otherwise. Romand was carried alive from the inferno. The flames were real enough, but Romand calculated that he would be rescued. At the point where he had recovered enough to speak to the police, he would then tell of the masked intruder who killed his family and left him for dead.

Jean-Claude-Romand_width1024Inevitably, Romand was found guilty of murder, and in 1996 was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for at least twenty two years. Prior to the trial, Carrère had begun a correspondence with Romand (right) with a view to writing an account of the case. In this account, aside from the factual detail, Carrère invites us to ponder the true nature of evil and insanity, and makes us wonder if the two states are totally separate, or whether or not they are actually bedfellows.

Carrère does his best to keep a neutral tone of voice as he describes the road Romand took, from his eighteen years of astonishing duplicity, via the terrible murders, through to journey’s end where he seems to have rehabilitated himself in prison, at least in the eyes of some. It would have been cheap work to write a bloodthirsty piece of tabloid jornalism, where shock falls upon shock, and adjectives become ever more spectacular, but Carrère is flesh and blood, and a compassionate human being; there is a note of bemusement as he describes the tortuous labyrinth of deception Romand builds around himself. The killings? He does no more than lay out the facts. The callousness, the brutality, the sheer casual depravity of the deeds speak for themselves. Carrère saves his contempt for the captive Romand, who seems to have cast a spell on many otherwise decent people who have been profoundly impressed with how the killer has turned to God.

Emmanuel-Carrère-1Carrère (left) concludes:

“He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure, but isn’t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?”

 Up to this point, I had wondered about the book’s title, but reality dawned as I recalled the vivid and terrifying image from the first epistle of Peter, chapter 5:

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:”

 L’Adversaire was first published in 2000, and has been the subject of several films and documentaries. This new edition, translated by Linda Coverdale, is published by Vintage Books, which is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies.

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