Humphrey 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.
The 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!“
There 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.