Novella, by Harry Brown, (1946 Secker & Warburg [1944])

Film by Lewis Milestone (dir.), (1946).


This down played war story, in its film version, receives a crushing rebuke from Ivan Butler in The War Film (Barnes,USA,1974) where he describes it as unrealistic, and loaded with ‘literary contrivance’.

Milestone’s most well known war film was probably All Quiet On The Western Front, another adaptation, based upon Erich Maria Remarque’s World War One novel. He also made Pork Chop Hill, one of the few films about the Korean War.

Harry Brown’s novella of the Salerno landings takes a platoon of soldiers and follows it, from the landing barge, across the beach, and on the eponymous six mile walk to the farmhouse that is its objective. Book and film have many similarities. The characters who make up the platoon are examined under the stress of combat, albeit in a rather stereotyped and sanitized version.

What picks the adaptation out as being worthy of adding to my series of studies, is the changes that are made to the ending, for here the heavy hand of somebody’s agenda can be seen over-riding the novelist’s original vision.

In getting to the objective the platoon has encountered the enemy. It has lost its officer, a senior NCO has cracked up, and there has been an encounter with an enemy tactical unit, which has been ambushed and destroyed. Throughout it all the soldiers have been observed, voicing their fears, expressing their various, sometimes stock, characters, reacting to events. Issues of leadership, of commitment, of mismanagement and the fog of war are discussed, argued about, and demonstrated in practice, but there is a growing awareness, present right from the start, of the threat posed by their eventual arrival at the farmhouse.

In the book the story ends with the men rising from cover in order to assault their objective. The laconic Tyne, who has acted as a sort of proxy commentator for the author throughout, closes the novella, with the words ‘It is all so terribly easy’, whereas we know, from what has gone before, that it is not. The ending of this story is almost surreal. The men are singing. Time has stopped. Tyne has blown the whistle for the all out assault to begin. The enigmatic statement that ‘somewhere in the next world Rivera’s finger was on the trigger of his gun’ has raised the possibility that either Rivera or Tyne, perhaps even the omniscient narrator, is already dead, and Tyne’s statement becomes ironic, but ironic on what level and to whom is ambiguous. Whether it is a conscious irony on his part, or the narrator’s irony we cannot be sure.

What we are sure of is that the outcome of their attack is by no means clear, not for them as individuals, not for the platoon as a unit. The farmhouse has taken on an almost mystical quality for Tyne, ‘waiting to gather him in, and hide him from the world’.

Having stuck more or less faithfully to the events of the book, the film diverges significantly at this end point, taking the platoon onwards to the farmhouse, and in a shoulder to shoulder charge, into it, in an unambiguous victory. All possible irony is swept away as surely as are the vanquished Germans. Survivors of the assault wander around the captured building.

A curiosity for me is that during the final assault the point of view of the camera shifts. We see the infantrymen storming the building from within, a perspective that is nowhere presented in the novella. Does this detach the viewer a little from the platoon? We are no longer with them, as we have been up to now, and that means we see what they are doing from a different emotional, as well as physical angle.

There are one or two other minor differences. In the film Tyne is a sergeant, and so Brown’s situation, where a corporal takes command despite a sergeant, Ward, still being present, is not dealt with. The film also beefs up the action, having the platoon encounter and destroy two tanks. This requires it to have anti-tank weapons, not present in the book, where tanks, from the initial landing onwards, are feared almost as much as planes. In turn this required a scene to explain why the bazookas were not used in attacking the farmhouse (they had used up their ammo). This small change alone skews the underlying sense of vulnerability that pervades the book. Over and again we are told that if tanks show up, the platoon is defenceless. To put in a successful encounter with tanks may have been done just for the visual entertainment, but its impact on the ‘message’ of the story is profound.

If C.S.Lewis was right, that a story is a net to catch ‘something else’, then here, as one way or another, with most of the other adaptations I have looked at, that ‘something else’ is essentially different for novelist and film maker. Brown’s novella is characterised by fear, and doubt, and uncertainty. Milestone’s film has at its core, the certainty that all will come right in the end. I’m reminded of that other end-shot volte-face, with Cavatini’s screenplay for the adaptation of his own novel, Miracle in Milan.

Brown was writing before the war had ended. He was not part of some anti-war movement, but rather appears to have been aiming for a realistic presentation of individuals under stress. His platoon members are perhaps types, but not stereotypes. Part of the way that the story, in the book, works is by stripping away the official authority figures from the platoon, and leaving it to the ‘natural’ leader, Tyne, to emerge. As people have pointed out however, in reviewing the film for example, his tactical scheme is flawed, or at least is simplistic. The opening of the book has seen the officer killed, for no good reason except that he was doing something silly in the context of the war. He was watching some shelling a few miles away. A salvo of shells straddles the landing barge, and he is hit. The death is not quite random, neither is it specifically intended. The senior sergeant then disappears looking for a superior officer, another sergeant is wounded, and a third cracks up from combat stress. Right from the start, Brown presents war as bigger than individuals, and largely out of their control, beyond even their vision, appearing random at the level of the individual.

Perhaps Brown’s vision of war was too threatening to carry through for a Hollywood audience. That audience requires a war in which actions and consequence show the positive virtues being rewarded, and the negative being punished, and of course, as in the ending, the struggle leading to victory. It would be an audience, by and large, of people who had not experienced combat, but who wanted to know about it, to a certain extent.

Arguments about the authenticity of the film have gone on since its release, and often centred around criticisms from an ex-soldier named Fuller. These can be found on the web easily enough, with some supporting and others attacking Milestone as a propagandist.

The changed ending does raise questions, and it is perhaps the formulating of those questions, rather than the getting of answers to them, that is valuable to us as students of story. I want to ask, did Milestone realise he was changing the ending so radically, or did he believe that Brown was setting the story for an unironic ‘easy’ victory? Did he knowingly make that change, believing that his audience would need that ‘easy’? Is it possible that by making the ending such a cliché he was himself being ironic, and trying to ram home, rather than to subvert the implication of the text? Of course, there is also the question of whether or not I have simply misread that text.