Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blasco and Remarque: Selling The Great War.

Vicente Blasco Ibañez
Erich Maria Remarque

Our current century was born in war, and every month we hear of new armed conflicts erupting around the globe. And yet, when it comes to bestselling novels, warfare is the least favorite subject.  It was not always the case. After the Great War, novels dealing with the conflict flooded the market all over Europe and United States. Two European writers would become the darlings of bestseller lists precisely for their pacifist views of the conflict. Today they are almost unknown, but in their day, Erich Maria Remarque and Vicente Blasco Ibañez were celebrated not only to readers but by moviegoers as well.

Born in 1867, in Valencia, Spain, Vicente Blasco Ibañez was a protean personality. Although he studied law, he never practiced it. He was a journalist, a politician, a novelist and a writer. A liberal and a mason, he opposed the monarchy, was imprisoned and exiled himself several times. Nowadays, he is known in Spain for his regional novels set in his native Valencia, but Blasco wrote adventure stories and historical fiction as well as psychological novels crammed with social criticism. He was a very dynamic character who traveled extensively, and he lived for a while in Argentina. That would provide him with the background for the novel that would make him famous throughout the world: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypses.

The outbreak of The Great War found him in Paris. Blasco became a war correspondent visiting the battlefield and embracing the Allied cause. In one occasion, the French President, Raymond Poincare advised him to write a war novel. In 1916, Blasco published Los cuatro jinetes del Apocalipsis in Spanish. Two yeas later, the novel was followed by Mare Nostrum, a spy story about a Spanish captain who seeks revenge after his ship is torpedoed by the Germans.
Poster of the 1948 Spanish version of "Mare Nostrum"

In the years following its publication, Four Horsemen would be translated to several languages and became a bestseller. According to Publishers Weekly it was the most read novel in United States in 1919. The story begins in Argentina. Madariaga, aka “The Centaur,” a wealthy landowner has hired two foreigners to help him with his ranch: the German Trott and Marcel Desnoyer, a Frenchman. They become Madariaga´ sons –in- law. Eventually, Trott and his family move back to Germany, and the Desnoyers stay behind. It is  Madariaga’s wish that his favorite grandson Julio Desnoyer  inherits his land.

Spoiled by his grandfather, Julio grows into a charming young man, a womanizer and a lover of good things. After Madariaga´s death, the Desnoyers move to France. They enjoy the Parisian high life and eventually purchase a chateau. Even the outbreak of the war, doesn´t stop Julio´s philandering and hedonistic ways of life. He is involved with Marguerite, a married woman. But when her husband, blind and injured, returns from the trenches, Marguerite has a change of heart and leaves Julio. Moved by her sacrifice, Julio joins the French Army. In a battle near his family´s castle, he is mortally wounded. Before dying he has a vision of the Four Horsemen of the Book of Revelation riding over the land.

Due to the novel’s popularity, in 1921 Hollywood commissioned director Rex Ingram to make a film version. To play Julio, Ingram casted a young unknown Italian named Rudolfo Valentino. At an early scene, Julio dances tango at an Argentine tavern. Displaying the nimbleness acquired over years of being a dance master, Rudy exuded sensuality. For the first time audiences were exposed to The Latin Lover in the flesh. The movie was a mega success, Valentino, now known as Rudolph, became the screen’s first  sex symbol, and the rest is history.

However, this was not the end of Hollywood´s love affair with Blasco Ibañez. The following year, Fred Niblo directed Valentino in Blood and Sand, an adaptation of Blasco´s novel about the world of bullfighting. This is the story of humble Juan Gallardo who reaches fame as a matador, but letting success go to his head, forgets friends and values with dire results. Nita Naldi played temptress Doña Sol who lures Juan away from his true love. So inspiring was this character that the French brought to the market a perfume named after her. Blood and Sand had an equally successful remake in 1941 with Tyrone Power as Gallardo and Rita Hayworth as Doña Sol.

In 1926, Greta Garbo made her Hollywood debut in “The Torrent” where she played Leonora, an opera singer, in this adaptation of Entre Naranjos (Among the Orange Trees), one of Blasco´s Valentian novels. That same year, Garbo co-starred with Antonio Moreno in “The Temptress” based on Blasco’s La tierra es de todos. She played Elena, a high class Parisian courtesan who follows naïve Rafael back to his Argentinean estancia in the pampas just to wreck havoc among the gauchos.

Antonio Moreno went to star as Captain Ulises Farragut in the first version of Mare Nostrum opposite Alice Terry (who had played Marguerite in The Four Horsemen) as Freya, the German spy. His Hollywood sojourn provided Blasco with an international fame no other Spanish author had enjoyed before or after. He moved to Fontanarossa, his villa in France and continued writing until his death in 1928.
Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno in Mare Nostrum (1926)

Unlike Vicente Blasco Ibañez , Erich Maria Remarque, was not a famed writer  when he published the novel that would make his name known all over the world. Born in 1898, into a Lower Saxony humble family, Remarque began to scribble his first novel at age sixteen. His literary efforts were cut short by the war. Conscripted while still a teenager, he  fought in the Western Front. In 1917, he was severely wounded and spent the rest of the conflict at an army hospital.

After the war, Remarque tried to earn his living as an editor, journalist and teacher. He finished his novel that was published in 1920, under the title The Dream Rom. He followed it eight years later with The Horizon Station. None of those books met with great success. In 1927, he began to write about his battlefield experiences. In a couple of months, he had finished his masterpiece, but it took him two years to find a publisher. All Quiet on the Western Front finally hit the market in 1929.

In the first eighteen months  2.5 million books had been sold and the novel had been translated to twenty-five languages. The story of Paul Baumer, a high school student that together with his classmates, joins up with dreams of glory just to face the horror of warfare, became an instant classic, and many have named it the best novel of The Great War. In his book, Remarque denounced nationalism and war in general. That pacifist message suited the anti-war mod that would permeate United States throughout the Twenties and Thirties.

Hollywood bought the rights to the novel and turned it into the hit film of 1930.  It won two Oscars, and it is considered a milestone in war film history. Steven Spielberg has acknowledged it as an inspiration for “Saving Private Ryan”. But not everybody was happy with the film. Angry at the pacifist message, the Nazis tried to boycott  the German premiere by letting mice loose among he audience. After  Hitler’s rise to power, the film was banned in Germany. It was also banned in Italy, Austria and France. That didn’t stop the story from continuing to inspire filmmakers. In 1979, there was a TV-movie based on the same novel, and later this year Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe is expected to star in the third film version of Remarque´s immortal story.

After publishing The Road Back (that would also be turned into a Hollywood film), Remarque and his wife  moved to Switzerland. They were at their Locarno Villa when the Nazis rose to power. That same year, Remarque´s celebrated novels were publicly burned in Germany and the new regime banned his works. From then on, Remarque knew it would be impossible for him to live and write in Germany. 
It was in Switzerland that Remarque wrote his next novel, Three Comrades, a poignant story of love and friendship in the Germany of the Twenties. After Good Housekeeping serialized the English translation of Three Comrades, Hollywood bought the rights and put none other than Scott Fitzgerald to adapt it to the screen. “Three Comrades” was well received in its theatrical debut in 1938.

As the Nazi threat loomed over Europe, Remarque moved first to France, and in 1939 crossed the Atlantic to settle in United States. In 1941, he wrote Flotsam which also became a film called “So Ends Our Night,” starring Fredric March and Glenn Ford. Although virtually forgotten now, it´s the moving story of a bunch of refugees gallivanting over Europe to escape the German advance. (If anyone is interested you may watch the complete film in YouTube.)

The end of the Second World War coincided with the publication of Arc de Triomphe, another Remarque bestseller. The plot focuses on a small community of stateless refugees struggling to survive in Paris on the eve of World War II. One of them is Dr. Ravic, a man that bears physical and emotional memories of his encounters with the Nazis. While struggling to avoid deportation, Ravic runs into Haake, the Gestapo agent that tortured him and killed his lover. Ravic then embarks on a revenge plan that is almost interrupted by a domed affair with a mysterious courtesan. Sadly, this successful novel was turned into a fiasco of a movie in 1948. I recommend the 1985 made-for-TV adaptation starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Lesley Anne Down.
Remarque and Paulette Goddard in Switzerland

After the war, Remarque became an American citizen. He divorced his first wife and married actress Paulette Goddard. The couple moved to Switzerland in the Fifties, there Remarque reassumed his writing. In 1954, Hollywood again remembered him. Thanks to its director Douglas Sirk, and Remarque´s hand in the script, A Time to Love, A Time to Die’ s adaptation looks like an  European film, despite its rich usage of Technicolor and other Hollywood’ special  effects. It’s one of the first attempts in American film to show the human face of the German people during the Second World War. The central love story reminds a little of Vincent Minelli’s “The Clock,” except that the action takes place not in twenty-four hours like in the Judy Garland film, but throughout  three weeks.

 Private Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) arrives to Berlin from the Eastern Front, in his first furlough in yeas, to find his house bombed and his family vanished. In search of his parents, he runs into Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver), the daughter of a former teacher of his. Elizabeth´s father has been arrested for expressing anti-Hitler sentiments and now languishes in a concentration camp. During his furlough, Ernst romances and, despite Nazi bureaucracy and other obstacles, marries Elizabeth. Together they meet ordinary and extraordinary people, from mass killers to members of a burgeoning German Resistance including Professor Pohlman played by Remarque himself. Eventually, Ernst returns to the Russian Front and is killed the same day he gets a letter from Elizabeth telling him she is pregnant.

Until his death in 1970, Erich Maria Remarque continued writing novels dealing with Nazi Germany. One exception was a romance between a car racer and a terminally ill woman. Under the name “Bobby Deerfield” it was turned into an Al Pacino vehicle. Hollywood producers remained loyal to a writer that provided them with plenty of material for box office hits.

Prior to this post have you ever heard of Blasco or Remarque? Have you eve read any of their works? Do you think their novels are obsolete or do the plots still bear relevance in this day and age?


  1. I've read both. All Quiet is still one of my favorite books, and its message is still relevant today, especially when you consider the beginning; youth fired up with patriotism and bravado, the country swept up in war fever, the common opinion espoused that the war would be over in months, if not weeks. It all sounds terribly familiar...

  2. You are right Li. All Quiet will remain a classic because of its inmortal message. Perhaps that´s the reason why a new film version is now in the making. But I´ve also noticed a renewed interest in The Great War wih Downton Abbey and Spielberg's The War Horse.

  3. I hadn't heard of either: How fascinating! The only World War I novel I can think of is A Farewell to Arms. It's still required reading for many American high-school students.

    It's interesting that you feel few war novels are being written now, or at least few bestsellers about war: war is such a drama-ready subject that it loans itself readily to storytelling — and in fact, war was more-or-less the father of storytelling, if you think about Gilgamesh and the Iliad, not to mention all the Biblical wars. Many of these fictional wars are remembrances of historical wars.

    World War II has established itself as THE war of the novelist, it seems to me. I've put a personal ban on WWII novels for now, I am just well sick of them. Even in my kids' classes, it seems every other novel they are assigned has to do with WWII, mostly surrounding the German atrocities. It was "The Book Thief" (a modern bestseller) that did it for me. It was so grim, so tragic—as you would expect about a war story. But I also felt I'd been reading the same idea since the Diary of Anne Frank and I was already on board with Nazis=evil, so I don't really need to read a thousand more books with that message. And we have other wars to write about.

    I would like to see more war novels outside the usual crop of western conflicts. We watched Ip-Man recently, a martial-arts film about Bruce Lee's mentor, and it focused quite a bit on Japan's invasion of China. Now, there is a conflict we hardly ever see in western storytelling — not surprising, since humans are ethnocentrist. (It was a good film, by the way — I'd recommend it.)

    As for your final question, I don't see why elements of those plots couldn't be reworked into more modern plots. I think where you'll really find resistance is a war novel that glorifies war: that is a concept that is, thankfully, dying out, as humans become more peaceful. (And we are becoming more peaceful, believe it or not.) War is almost always depicted as horrifying for all involved, especially if the writer (like Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse Five) was himself a soldier, who saw the horrors firsthand and knows there's nothing glorious about mass killing. No doubt some we'll still see war books that emphasize glory, honor, and jingoism, but there will be fewer and fewer as the decades pass.

    Thanks for that thought-provoking post!

    1. "Eventually, Ernst returns to the Russian Front and is killed the same day he gets a letter from Elizabeth telling him she is pregnant." Violante, this reminds me of the ending of Cold Mountain! Another recent bestselling war book. Interesting that both authors chose to close on that note ... I wonder how common that is in war books.

    2. Dear Sister Stephanie,
      War novels are stories dealing with battlefield experience or the home front. What you are talking about is Holocaust liteature. But war or military fiction ceased to be a bestselling subject in the XX century (Cold Mountain was published in 1997, almost three decades ago).

      As you say, there are other wars, but recent conflicts have not produced any bestselling stories. You have plenty of thrillers dealing with terrorism, but few novels describing battlefield experience a la James Jones or Norman Mailer, who by the way, didn’t glorify war anymore than Vonnegut did. The best and most memorable war fiction is always anti-war.

      True, war novels tend to have unhappy endings, it´s part of its pacifist message.

      About the Sino-Japanese war from a Western point of view, I highly recommend Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed and China Sky.

    3. The Book Thief deals with air raids and carpet bombings, which I would consider a "war novel." Is it only a war novel if it talks about soldiers? I would think stories about civilians caught up in wars (forced into the military, forced into camps, cities and homes bombed) would also be war novels. But I don't know the technical definitions.

      I do want to read Pearl S. Buck: I haven't read ANY of her stuff yet. Bad girl, me!

    4. War literature or military fiction defines novels in which the primary action takes place in the battlefield or a space that is linked to military functions (like P.O.W.’s camps) or stories that offer a combination of battlefield action and home front drama (like in GWTW). The Book Thief, which I have read, is classified in libraries as children´s lit, historical fiction and Holocaust literature. Definitions are very tricky. Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions is a combination of war fiction and home front drama, and although one of its highlights is the liberation of a camp, it does not qualify as Holocaust Literature. The same applies to Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Whereas. The Night of the Generals is considered more a historical mystery than a war novel, even though all major characters are soldiers

    5. Interesting — thanks for the clarification!

    6. I think I'd have to disagree with the fact that books about war are not being sold. Most recently, they've mostly been memoirs, which is a rather "new" phenomenon. I say "new" because most writers in Ibanez and Remarque's time didn't write about themselves per say, but as you mentioned in your article they fictionalized their own experiences. The books we're seeing today on bestseller lists are works like "Jarhead" -- a memoir that focuses on the Desert Storm conflict, "Matterhorn" -- a bestseller hailed as "a brilliant account of war" when it comes to the Vietnam war, and "Band of Brothers" -- a true story about an airborne division during WWII which was turned into an HBO mini-series.

      I believe any novel, memoir, or nonfiction account of war is a big draw still to this day. Just look at "Act of Valor," which is currently out on the big screen. It uses real Navy Seals in real scenarios and it's doing really well at the box office. WWI and WWII aren't the only wars that draw readers and viewers, although these two wars (and I'd say in the U.S. also the Civil War) seem to be the most talked about and written about, there are other wars out there that others enjoy delving into. After all "The Hurt Locker" (really great film!) won an Oscar last year for best film. I don't believe this is a genre that will die anytime soon.

      Another war film I highly recommend is "Rescue Dawn," which deals with POWs during the Vietnam conflict. Or even Catherine Deneuve in "Indochine." Oh, and I can't forget Clint Eastwood's two-sided take on WWII in the Pacific with "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers."

    7. Sister Mary, Mary
      You and I are not disagreeing one bit. I never said that war memoirs or history books dealing with military conflicts, old or new, are not fashionable or doing poorly in the sales department. I was strictly talking about war/military fiction (I use the word “novels” twice just in my introduction.)
      That is a fact that baffles me. Why a subject that does so well when is non-fiction (true stories as you mention), loses its appeal when it becomes a fictional plot? What great novel has come out from The Gulf War? Is there an equivalent to The Naked and the Dead, The Caine Mutiny or James’ Jones From Here to Eternity but dealing with this century´s conflicts? Films yes, but not literature.

      War memoirs are not new; they’ve been around since Julius Caesar commented about his conquest of Gaul. Churchill, De Gaulle, an Eisenhower wrote bestselling accounts of their wartime experiences. And the Great War produced classics like Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That and my own favorite: Vera Brittany’s Testament of Youth. But war novels flooded the market as well. Just in America, there were classics like A Farewell to Arms (that Sister Stephanie mentioned) and Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun.

  4. Ibanez was before my time, but I read "Spark of Life" by Remarque, which is about life in a concentration camp from the point of view of a German political prisoner known only as number 509, not long after it was translated into English. It's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and I still have a copy on my bookshelf. Not for the faint of heart, but I highly recommend it. Good post.

  5. Joycelyn you are he first person I know who have actually read "Spark of Life". I imagine it to be very powerful. All Remarque´s novels are very powerful. He is my favorite German novelist.

    1. It had quite a profound effect on me since I was young when I read it. I think I got the book out of the library, but the opening is haunting and I never forgot it. Many years later I tracked down a used hardcover and read it again. It was just as mesmerizing.

      I think these books ultimately focus on character and human nature and just in that regard are still very relevant. "King Rat," James Clavell's first novel, is also a good study of the effect of war on men's character. (The movie is good, too.)

    2. Talk about powerful novels! Cavell’s King Rat was more than a war/POW story, it was a fable of how men behave under duress. I loved the film, although they washed out the whole story of Sean and its homosexual connotations, but the cast was superb, specially George Segal as The King and Sir Tom Courtenay as Grey

  6. I adored 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,' but I haven't been able to find English translations of any of his other works at local libraries. I've seen a number of the films based on Ibáñez's books, but haven't seen 'Mare Nostrum' yet. I'd like to point out that Rex Ingram wasn't the one who cast Rudy Valentino in 'The Four Horsemen.' Screenwriter June Mathis, a very powerful woman in Hollywood in the silent era, was so impressed by his 10-minute cameo in the Clara Kimball Young film 'Eyes of Youth' (1919) that she knew she had to have him, and went to the bat for this unknown, mentoring and helping him every step of the way when so many other people didn't believe a relative unknown could be the star of their upcoming major motion picture. She took a chance on him and believed in him when most of his prior work consisted of secondary roles, and his few films where he was in a lead role hadn't been blockbusters.

    Much of my writing is set during the WWII era, in both Europe and America. I've always felt a special pull towards that era, and writing the stories of young people coming of age in the 1940s just seems to come so naturally to me, after all the books I've read about the American homefront in WWII and all the Shoah memoirs I've ever read. There are so many different angles to take, so many different stories to tell. My current WIP is a YA historical I'm expanding from a long short story/piece of flashback and backstory into a full manuscript, about a Dutch teen boy who eventually joins the partisans and Dutch Free Forces, and in the closing months of the war is sent from Holland to fight the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies before going to America to join his fiancée. There's always a new way to depict what to some people is an overdone or boring era. The War happened a little bit differently in every country, and not every person in every country had the exact same experience of occupation, war, or enslavement. I don't see it as a depressing era, but as stories of how people kept love and hope alive under some dark circumstances, and how they returned to life afterwards, taking such delight in the little things as they relearnt how to be a part of the human race.

  7. Carrie Anne,
    You are soo right. I’m embarrassed, how could I have forgotten June Mathis who was instrumental in Valentino´s career? In fact, she was the one that hired Rex Ingram (there were rumors that they were romantically involved).She was played by Suzanne Pleshette in The Legend of Valentino and by Felicity Kendal in the Nureyev biopic.

    There are so many aspects of World War II that haven’t even been touched (Sister Stephanie mentioned the Sino-Japanese War which is a parallel conflict). The problem is that writers will only dwell on the same aspects and rely on clichés. This is specially truth about Holocaust novels and it is why many people will be bored by them. It’s why I write fantasy, because nobody had combined the two genres. Aside from Soldier of Orange, I had never heard of a novel dealing with the Dutch Free Forces, and your protagonist’s experiences in Indonesia sounds very unusual. Good luck with that!

  8. Sister Violante,

    I've never heard of either writer, but I'm familiar with some of the titles you mention. Watching Valentino in that short clip, I can understand why women were infatuated with him. He was a cutie. Have you noticed that the women in his films always seem to be clinging on to him, as though they might fall if he let them go? Ha! (And they always sit on his lap!) Tango dancing seems to have evolved a lot (notice the woman's posture). I cracked up every time I saw the audience closeups, especially the guy with the big eyes and the fish in his wine glass.

    To answer your question, I don't think these plots are obsolete. Love and war will always be great sources for storytelling. I just think the rendition of the films (dramaturgical choices, such as scene development, dialogue, camera angles, performances, etc) is what seems outdated when we look at these clips. But the stories themselves are full of conflict and drama. I don't see why they wouldn't be successful if adapted for modern audiences.

    Thank you for a very informative post!

  9. Sister Lorena,
    Valentino created the Latin Lover image, but the character he played was very intense an it helped to create that sort of aura. Talking about adaptations., there is a horrible 1960's version of The 4 Horsemen that set the story in WWII, and Sharon Stone starred in a fiasco version of Blood and Sand that took place in modern Spain. So I am weary of new versions.

  10. Tons of great information! :) I'm new to your blog.

  11. Welcome Margo! Hope you stay with us for a long time.

  12. A great post, and with so many interesting comments and replies. I finally got around to take in the clips in their entirety. Thanks, I didn't get to see many movies in my youth.
    Is "The Hunger Games" a war movie? I haven't seen it but it seems to have many of the aspects of a war, and of course, a large percentage of science fiction deals with wars of one sort or another. Regis

    1. Dear Regis,
      With this current copyright hullabaloo, I find it much safer to use YouTube trailers than images, but I also find that trailers work as bullets and could make people watch those movies or read the books behind them (old librarian habits die hard!)


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