Book Company KWilliam March’s 1933 novel, Company K, about an American Marine company in France for 9 months at the end of WW I is a strange little novel.  With no narrative arc, no omniscient narrator, it is composed of short, first person stories from 118 men. It’s as though each man was asked to write down, in 250 words or less, one memory of their time at war. They are then arranged by time.  The first several are pre-war, the exuberance and naivete of the youngsters going over, the exhortations of the chaplains to conduct themselves like crusaders. They arrive in March of 1918 and fight in several famous-to-history battles, including that of Belleau Wood, and through to the Armistice on November, 11.  No detail is spared,  including cutting of ears, taking memorabilia from corpses and the most inflammatory, Americans shooting German prisoners of war, not in ones or twos but en-masse: line ’em up and mow ’em down.  The last third of the book is in the post war, stories of the welcomes back, the loans to start a farm refused, the war injuries hobbling some, one in prison for cop-killing, one in an insane asylum. 

All is delivered in a spare, un-melodramatic prose.  A matter-of-fact, “This is what happened. I was there.  I saw it.”

It’s a strange book, and it grows on you. The short pieces, at first disconcerting because of their lack of explicit connection to each other, slowly form a mosaic of fact and feeling.  After closing the pages, a character or a story will pop up and then pop another and  another; our impression of the war and the men, unburdened by narrative “filler”  is both more detailed and more memorable than say, John Dos Passos’ Thee Soldiers .

When it was published in 1933 Company K elicited favorable comment by Graham Greene and Alistair Cooke, who called March “The unrecognized genius of our time.”  It didn’t get wide readership, however, nor does it appear prominently in lists of books about that war –one suspects because of the gravity of the accounts, the irony bordering on cynicism and the non-traditional form.

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Movie Company KCompany K was made into a movie in 2004 by Robert Clem, a native Alabaman as was March.  Though powerful in parts, and especially as it builds to the end, it is not compelling enough to have attracted much critical or popular notice.  And, to be honest, this would be a difficult book to present on film for anyone: 118 very small chapters, each a first person story by a different man. 

Clem elected to proceed in the same way, though pared down to 15 sections, some titled with men’s names as in the book, a few with  locations such as Army Field Hospital or Approaching Verdun, France. The most immediate problem is that the camera creates an observing narrator outside the men, breaking the intriguing multiple first person form of the book. Though a title says “Sergeant James Dunning,”  we are looking at him instead of hearing from him.  And in looking at, because a movie is above all visual, especially a war movie, we lose the matter-of-fact tone of the book and the irony laced through it. Our impression of seeing a soldier beat a prisoner to death is entirely different than reading a man’s own words telling us.

He almost had me winded, but I finally caught him.  I stuck my bayonet into him time after time.  Then I hit him on the head with the butt of my rifle.

It was a treacherous, dirty trick to cut Jakie’s throat that way, Jakie was the straightest man I ever knew and he wouldn’t hurt a fly, if he could get out of it. — And to see him with his head almost cut off, and his eyes… It all goes to show that you can’t trust a German.  I know I never gave one an even break after that.

To add to the problem of visuals overwhelming the matter-of-factness, Clem sometimes underlines what is obvious on its face: a bayoneting showing the head and torso of the marine doing it followed by a camera-up angle of the face as he drives the blade home again, and again.

Trying to modify the impossible to film 118 chapters by decreasing the number of characters creates other problems.  Instead of having one man–one story, the movie characters appear in several scenes.   Other scenes are elongated  into a more traditional movie narrative, merging one sequence into another – say the killing of a German in a trench followed by a scouting mission into the deep woods and eating blood soaked bread; or a  sequence of a virgin duped by a prostitute flowing  into a trench scene. The result is confusion: why is a man identified if he is not part of what we are seeing?  The brain, instead of realizing it has to follow a new story-telling paradigm, keeps returning to the traditional one of trying to follow a character, or completing a story.  Given the roots in the novel, the effort is frustrated.  The one man–one story mosaic is lost and we don’t gain, in exchange, a cohesive life-of-a-company story line.

Possibly because of who March was and who Clem is, or because of funders’ sensibilities (e.g. The Alabama Foundation for the Humanities) some important punches are pulled.  The seduction by a prostitute does not end, as it does in the book, with discovery of venereal disease and being court martialed for failing, after the encounter, to report for a prophylactic.  In a confrontation between two brothers, one slightly wounded after a few days of fighting and another  in the trenches for 8 months, the film leaves us scratching our head — what is the point of this?  The book shows the conflict much more sharply with the family giving hero status to the one who was ‘wounded’ and slighting the one who was not,  thus driving home a strong impression of March’s view of the war.  Several strong anti-God exclamations don’t appear at all.

Though documentary footage is mixed with good effect and some battle scenes bring the fear of being strafed or gassed right into the audience, others have the look of history buffs dressed in period costumes doing re-enactments of foxhole fighting, or trench life: costumes too clean, faces too full; a pair sharing a smoke in the driving rain in completely dry uniforms.  My guess is that budgeting problems prevented bringing all to the same level of verisimilitude.

For all that, the movie is one of the few I have seen which look directly at the experience of Real War, not Glory War and it’s resulting combat fatigue.  The author, appearing in early scenes at his typewriter, tells his own story, trying — as March himself tried–  to drive off the ghosts by writing about what he had seen.

You don’t have to be a WW I history buff to read or to see Company K.  Anyone  interested in the effects of war in all its stressors, from friend and foe alike, will find this an interesting movie and unique book. War trauma has been much in the news since the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq but as Company K shows, it certainly did not begin there.  As one marine in another war says, “No one who has fought has any illusions about glory.”

William March became much better known for his 1954 Bad Seed which as also been made into a movie, twice –once in an adaptation by Maxwell Anderson.  After Company K it is said he never wrote about the war again, though given the subject matter of Bad Seed, about an eight-year-old sociopath and burgeoning serial killer, one suspects he only shifted his dramatis personae; the volcano remains the same.

 

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