|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?