This is my contribution to the World War I in Classic Film blogathon . Please do visit and take a look at the other postings!
Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.
The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.
Another powerful section is a nightmarish sequence where the men realise that the Germans are digging a tunnel beneath them, preparing to lay mines there. The only question is whether they will be the ones killed, or whether they will have been relieved by then and their successors will be the ones to be blown up. I’m not sure this quite makes sense in realistic terms (even amid the slaughter of the Western Front, wouldn’t any officer move base to avoid the risk of men being needlessly lost in this way?) But it works brilliantly as a demonstration of the fear that the soldiers are living with all the time, and the low value put on their individual lives.
The banter, arguments and gallows humour of the comrades are well done, with little touches like the soldier who constantly whistles the Marseillaise, and is asked to give his “other tune” a turn. William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay, so it’s hardly surprising that the dialogue is of high quality. Hawks, who was constantly involved as a writer in his films, whether credited or not, is always good at showing comradeship between men in situations of strain and danger. This is something which comes across strongly in his great early war film The Dawn Patrol. It’s also a major factor in his aviation dramas set in peacetime, where the pilots are nevertheless constantly risking their lives, such as Only Angels Have Wings and the film he made just before The Road to Glory, Ceiling Zero.
An element which features strongly in both Hawks’ and Faulkner’s earlier World War One-themed works is heavy drinking as a means to coping with or temporarily blanking out the horror of war. Like the tortured captain played by Richard Barthelmess in The Dawn Patrol, and also like characters in Faulkner’s early novel Soldiers’ Pay, Captain Paul La Roche (Baxter) has an open bottle of whisky always on hand. He uses it to wash down headache pills. Baxter is always excellent at playing characters under mental strain, as in 42nd Street and The Prisoner of Shark Island, and here his potrayal is once again compelling. The new lieutenant, Michel Denet (March) is initially suspicious of La Roche’s way of running things and his drunken, dead-eyed depression. But he gradually realises the intolerable pressure his C.O. is operating under, as he is sent on a succession of suicidal missions which regularly see half his men destroyed and a need for ever younger “replacements” (another echo of The Dawn Patrol).
Younger – and older. Factual books about the First World War, such as Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, tell how both elderly men and boys as young as 15 were able to serve by telling transparent lies about their ages. In this film, old soldier Barrymore, playing La Roche’s father, dyes his hair and arrives to fight alongside his son. The elderly warrior is very proud of his record, and refuses to be sent home – but, in some of the film’s most shocking and poignant scenes, he finds he can’t cope with modern methods of warfare. He falters under fire and then makes a blunder which costs another man his life. For my money, Barrymore really steals the picture – he is known as an actor who can give no holds-barred performances, but here, by contrast, he is touchingly understated, his mouth trembling slightly, his voice stumbling over a word.
Perhaps because the father and son story is so well done, the conventional love triangle seems a bit predictable by comparison. June Lang has a potentially interesting role as Monique La Coste, a nurse caring for the wounded, but she doesn’t really get enough screen time and space for the terrible demands of that work to come across. She always looks glamorous and doesn’t even wear a uniform, recalling how nurse Joan Crawford wears gowns by Adrian on the battlefield in the earlier Hawks/Faulkner collaboration Today We Live – which nevertheless gives more weight to the role of nurses.
Monique’s relationship with Paul, as she tries to love him out of gratitude because he has helped her family, is only briefly sketched in. Michel wins her with music, as they huddle together to escape an air raid, in a cellar which is fortunately equipped with a piano. Michel is clearly a practised womaniser, and Monique lets him know that she knows that, with some enjoyable verbal fencing. Their sexual sparring is Hawksian enough, as far as it goes, but takes up little screen time – soon replaced by their agonising over how they are betraying Paul.
There are spoilers about the film’s ending in this next bit.
Hawks is famously a director who repeats himself, and this whole film is full of similarities to and echoes of his other movies, but perhaps this is most striking in the ending. He has several 1930s films where people who have shown cowardice and cost others their lives have a chance to redeem themselves. (I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers for the other films concerned, but may write a separate piece about Hawks’s endings in the future.) Those with physical conditions such as blindness and heart defects also often decide on one last suicidal feat to save others. Repeatedly the blind man joins forces with the one who has failed his comrades, as here, where La Roche, blinded in battle, sets off on a last deadly mission. He is accompanied by his father, who redeems himself from his earlier cowardice at the last – and, in a moment which is surely a bit much, blows his old bugle one last time before dying.
This type of melodramatic dream ending isn’t unique to Hawks, however – I’ve seen several films by other directors with similar “glorious” deaths. Perhaps more characteristic is the way Hawks undercuts the heroics immediately afterwards, by showing that, despite the joint sacrifice of father and son, Michel may well die too, as the killing goes on unabated. Far from providing a happy ending for the lovers, the film ends with Michel delivering the same speech to the new recruits that Paul delivered to him earlier – and being asked by Monique what the sense is in it all. He has no answer for her, except to say that many others have asked that too. This downbeat ending is another element which annoyed the original New York Times reviewer, but rings far truer than any glib explanations could.
For further reading, here’s a link to an article by R. Emmet Sweeney at the Museum of the Moving Image which looks at both The Dawn Patrol and The Road to Glory.