Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Steinbeck's Short but Effective Novel of The Resistance - The Moon is Down

I admit that I am not a great fan of the 20th Century American novel, though it turns out in retrospect  that my educational exposure to Steinbeck included The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row.  In more recent years I have come to appreciate his non-fiction work and especially his journalistic reports during World War Two, collected in Once There Was a War.

This Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of John Steinbeck’s World War Two resistance novel includes a very informative 18 page introduction by Donald V. Coers, Professor of English and scholar of Steinbeck’s body of work.  Also included are more than three pages of suggested further reading.

This introduction recounts how Steinbeck worked with the U.S. Office of Coordinator of Information and “Wild” Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to support the Allied war effort.  Steinbeck’s work in that regard brought him into contact with displaced citizens and refugees from a number of European nations then under Nazi occupation.

In late 1941, Steinbeck conceived the idea for a short novel about the experience of being invaded and occupied.  Reworking a first draft that was set in America, he published this final version as The Moon is Down in March, 1942.  It was soon staged on Broadway and in 1943 a film version premiered.  Critical reaction was varied and often quite strongly negative.  However, according to Professor Coer’s account, this short novel was well received in the afore-mentioned communities of wartime exiles.  Their positive response led to the text being smuggled into Occupied Europe.  In Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, and eventually China, clandestinely translated, printed or mimeographed editions were distributed by underground resistance organizations and became a strong element in pro-Allied propaganda campaigns.  Nazi occupation forces banned the book (even in Germany) but copies were actually for sale in several countries as a fund-raising effort by the resistance.

The story itself is told simply in neat, clean prose.  The events of invasion, occupation, etc., are narrated without benefit of Hollywood style drama.  Neither the occupied nor the occupiers are ever identified by nationality or geographic location.  The action is set almost entirely in and around a small simple town, with the sea on one side and farmland surrounding it on land.  The reader is introduced by name to the individual citizens and soldiers interacting in this small drama, but we are offered no information about the larger world and larger war beyond the victory of the occupiers.  The story is thus embodied at a very personal scale as each individual is presented with choices and makes decisions about how to react in this new situation.

I think Steinbeck’s choices in this work explain why it had such a popular response in so many different occupied countries.  It is a story in many ways still relevant today in a world still marred by armed violence that crosses borders and reaches even into peoples’ homes.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Worthwhile First Visit to the National Military Park Guilford Courthouse

I’ve started breaking up longer car trips to include overnight stops and a visit to favorite bookstores, new museums, battlefields, etc.  I recently was able to visit GuilfordCourthouse National Military Park, preserving a significant portion of the battlefield in modern Greensboro, North Carolina.  The Park has a Visitor’s Center with parking near the entrance.  The Center presents some exhibits related to the battle including a reproduction British Army ‘grasshopper’ gun and a very nice collection of artwork on the battle by Don Troiani. A roughly 30 minute long film is shown in the Visitor’s Center theatre every hour and there is a shorter 10 minute program animating the battlefield maps to illustrate the course of the battle.

The largest battle of the American Revolution fought in the Carolinas, Guilford Courthouse offers many interesting aspects of warfare of the period from tactics to logistics, from command to the factors that support of breakdown an individual soldier’s morale.  The outlines of the battle itself as fought by both sides may be familiar to fans of the film “The Patriot” which drew upon elements of this battle and The Cowpens for its fictional major battle. 
The park today is mostly wooded just as this area was at the time of the battle and covers about 250 acres of the original battlefield with suburbia butting up against it on every side. The areas occupied by the flanks of both armies, however, are now in the adjacent cemetery, county park, or neighboring subdivisions.  The Military Park also straddles a local commuter route, Old Battleground Road, but there are traffic signals to get you across it to the other part of the battlefield.  The park has been very much adopted by local runners, walkers, cyclists, and dog walkers which at least suggests local support for its continued preservation (and a need for caution if you drive or bicycle during your visit.)

Brochures and cd-audio guides available in the Visitor’s Center shop will direct you along a 2.25 mile long self-guided tour featuring 8 stops each with one or more placards relating to the people and events of interest at that stop.  These stops are linked to the park-wide system of paved walking trails which, while rough in spots, appear wheelchair accessible (you might want to contact the Park staff before visiting to make sure this is still true).  A wider grass pathway through the park follows the original trace of the Great Salisbury Wagon Road (Historic New Garden Road) which brought the armies together at this spot.   Also indicated is an approximate area location for the long lost Guilford Courthouse building which gave its name to the battlefield.

The main part of the battle lasted about two hours and I easily spent that much time in the Visitor’s Center, its Shop, and in driving the auto tour, walking to all of the related markers and sites at each stop.  Frankly, I could happily spend most of a day here pursuing a more detailed and slower paced examination of the battle from beginning to end.

The area in which Cornwallis assembled and formed the British Army for battle is actually outside the park, although a part of that assembly area is preserved in the nearby Hoskins Farmstead/Colonial Heritage Center property.  The first of the three American lines crosses the modern New Garden Road just inside the National Military Park before you reach the Visitor’s Center.  Its right (north) wing extended into the modern suburbs and the extreme left (south) wing likewise stretched out beyond its side of the park.

From the Visitor’s Center, you can walk the greenway that marks the path of the original Salisbury Wagon Road used by both armies or begin the walking/biking/auto tour (as I did by car for reasons of time).  The greenway/Wagon Road route offers a sense of what the wooded battlefield was like for both armies and takes you across the center of the first two American lines.  The self-guided tour road/path takes you across the left wing of the first two American lines and then to the leftmost edge of the third and final American line.

From the 3rd stop of the tour, a path takes you to the Nathanael Greene Monument at the approximate center of the second American line and near the path of the old wagon road.  This 2nd line of Virginians offered more prolonged resistance to the advancing British but eventually the 2nd Line too was broken and the pieces withdrew in different directions through the wooded terrain.   During the battle itself Greene appears to have spent most of his time with his third strongest battle line anticipating the climactic moment of engagement for both sides.

That 3rd American battle line had about twice the distance between itself and the 2nd line as there was between the first two lines.  None of them were close enough to offer effective support to each other, although this also meant each line was less likely to be dragged into the fight at the previous line.  Instead, they constituted independent and increasingly difficult obstacles placed in the path of the British through wooded and difficult terrain.  From stop No 6 on the guided trail, you can walk to the area held by the Maryland Regiment where it clashed with the British Guards and grenadiers.  There is also a cavalry monument on the field though given the numbers I would consider it more to have been a ‘mounted action’ between elements of cavalry on both sides rather than the classic clash of sabers charge.

The Maryland Regiment was of particular interest since my former Maryland Army National Guard unit claimed the legacy of the Marylanders of the Revolution.  Here at Guilford Courthouse, the 1st Maryland clashed with the British Brigade of Guards.  The Guards, the Marylanders, and Colonel Washington’s horse were all a part of a melee on the American left where two American guns were the target of the Guards’ attentions.  Volleys were exchanged and each side charged the other in a complex action as the Guards had to address the Marylanders in one direction and the mounted Americans in another.  All those engaged were veterans and fought like it.  It was during these actions that the British guns reportedly fired into the brawling mass inflicting casualties on both sides, though the legend that this was done at the order of Cornwallis is challenged in a number of accounts.

The now worn American Army with many of its units scattered under British pressure faced a tired and worn British Army.  Green was able to mount an effective rear guard as the rest of the army began its retreat to a former camp of the army some 15 miles away.  The Americans had lost the battle but Greene imposed such a price for the victory that instead of pursuing the British Army began a withdrawal that would ultimately end in surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.  Nathanael Greene would describe the two hour battle as “long, obstinate, and bloody” probably based upon the intensity of those two hours of almost continuous, intense combat.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Waterloo – Battle, History, Film, Book

Author Frederick E. Smith, was a veteran of the cycle of novel to film and vice versa after his own “633 Squadron” turned into a film several years before he was asked to write this novelized version of the script for the epic film “Waterloo” about the battle fought by Napoleon against the Duke of Wellington’s army and the Prussians under Marshal Blucher.  The film was a major release in 1970, a joint Italy/USSR production directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, whose previous film hand been the almost eight hour long 1966 “War and Peace” (1966).  (I once saw this shown in 16mm format on a series of 10 minutes reels!).  Like that previous film,”Waterloo” was shot on location in the Soviet Union with thousands of Soviet Army personnel as extras to recreate the sweeping battle scenes.
There are persistent rumors of a four hour long Russian language version of the film, but I suspect that that was the rough cut version that was then edited down to the final release version.   During four years living in Moscow, I was never able to find any recorded version (VHS or DVD) that was other than a Russian version of the regular release.  Nor could I find reference to a 4 hour long version in any of the Russian language film catalogs I was able to access.

I read this novel very much as ‘the shooting script’ for the film and looked especially for elements that were consistent with or not consistent with the released version of the movie.  The narrative arc of this fictionalized battle is reasonably close to history, with only minor touches of Victor Hugo or Tolstoy inserted here and there probably as dramatic flourishes.  I preferred the Napoleon presented in these pages to Rod Steiger’s Napoleon in the film.  I don’t know whether the differences arose from the actor or the director’s interpretation, but this novel’s Napoleon matches up better with my conception of the historical Emperor I know from decades of reading and study.

The other characters in the book also follow the film’s lead as they consolidate historical characters into one film personage or attribute historical dialogue from one character to a different film character.  Another difference between page and screen are the Duke’s interactions with the 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers (a favorite regiment of mine) – and in my opinion the film’s version successfully ‘improves’ on the novel’s account for entertainment purposes.  The book includes an expansive list of the cast and crew involved in making the film.

The research done for the film also inspired another book by the film’s Costume Designer  Ugo Percoli and Michael Glover, “1815, The Armies at Waterloo” which presented a history of the battle and pages of color plates and drawings of how they were believed to have appeared at the battle.  Frederick Smith acknowledged “his debt” to a list of ten then significant works addressing Napoleon’s life, the ‘hundred days’ campaign leading up to the Battle of Waterloo, and his principal opponent the Duke of Wellington.  These include “Napoleon” by Felix Markham (which I’ve also read and reviewed), David Howard’s [sic] “A Near-Run Thing” – which I’ve also read and enjoyed.  The cited works cited were, in 1970, among the standard works on the subject.  However, they and thus Smith’s work here has been overtaken by subsequent research and scholarship.

I do recommend this book, especially if you are a fan of the film and interested in the insights it might give into the process of translating words into screen images.  Until someone writes a history of how this movie came to be made, this book plus Percoli’s, are the nearest thing.