1936 was a productive year for Howard Hawks. He made Ceiling Zero, The Road to Glory and much of Come and Get It (until being replaced by William Wyler). They are all fine films, but the focus today will be on The Road to Glory, which takes place during World War 1, in the trenches in France in 1916. It is an unrelentingly bleak film, where almost everybody we get to know dies a painful death, and there seem to be no point to any of the fighting. In one scene a wounded soldier is caught in no-man's land, and his moaning and crying drives the soldiers in the trench crazy. After several failed rescue attempts, which only end with more soldiers being killed or injured, an officer shoots him, putting him out of his misery but perhaps more importantly, putting the other soldiers out of their misery, the misery of hearing him without being able to help.
It was producer Darryl F. Zanuck who instigated the film, and called on Hawks to make it. Hawks and Joel Sayre began working on a script and then Hawks brought in William Faulkner, who was not only a close friend but was also going through a rough time, Nunnally Johnson, who was associate producer, claims he rewrote much of the dialogue, and then finally Hawks and Faulkner put all the various drafts together. It was the second time Faulkner and Hawks collaborated, the first time was Today We Live (1933), from which this script borrowed quite a few things, as it did from Hawks's earlier The Dawn Patrol (1930), both set during World War 1. But it was originally based on the French film Les crois de bois (Raymond Bernard 1932); that film is what Zanuck had as his inspiration and he had bought its rights.
Although The Road for Glory is an American film it has no American characters (the US did not enter the war until 1917), they are all French, portrayed by several fine actors such as Gregory Ratoff and Lionel Barrymore. John Qualen is also among them, although the male lead, and giving the best performance, is Fredric March, who is exceptional as Michel. On occasion he has a mischievous expression, but usually he looks bewildered and tired, and he is always soft-spoken, coming across as a distant observer, not sure what is happening to him and why, but doing his best to keep going and stay alive, and keep the men alive too if possible, What sets him apart from the others is that in the beginning he has not yet lost his hope or his charm, there is more to him than just a desperate, depressed, soldier, but as the film progresses he is losing whatever spark he once had.
Visually The Road to Glory has an expressionistic quality, with mists and shadows, and there are plenty of cramped settings, low-hanging lamps, visible inner ceilings and such. Some war scenes on the other hand almost have the feeling of being journal footage, from a real battle. That might be because it is footage taken from Les crois de bois. It is no surprise that the film looks good because the cinematographer was Gregg Toland, his first film with Hawks. At this time Toland had already began his famous partnership with William Wyler but the look here is different, more intimate.
The Road to Glory is not just bleak, it also has some of the finest and most romantic scenes Hawks ever directed. They involve Michel and Monique, played by June Lang. The first time they meet is during an air raid when they are both seeking shelter in the same basement, He was there first, and is playing on a piano to keep himself together. Then she drops in, and he, who has not seen a woman for some time, almost immediately tries to seduce her, using different methods but failing with all of them. She is not hostile, and there is mutual attraction, but since there is another man in her life she does not want to make things complicated. It is a finely acted and shot scene, and what primarily makes it so good is that they are both so aware of the war, of the falling bombs; the fear is palpable. It is there in the body language, their tone of voice, the way their eyes move, in their actions. Later in the film they go on a date and they return to the same basement, and he plays the piano and sings. "You felt it too, didn't you? Like coming home." he says.
There are some weaknesses in the film, and it mostly concerns the side story about the officer in charge and his father. Especially the last sequence involving them is overtly sentimental and unsubtle. It is like it was directed by somebody else, which might be possible. Fortunately it is not the last scene in the film, because the very last scene is excellent, and also typical of Hawks, as well as Faulkner, It is not so much an ending, things have changed, yes, yet life (or death) goes on almost like nothing had happened.
The fatalism and stoicism that The Road to Glory is an expression of is not only Hawksian, there is such a strong tendency also in John Ford, and others to. It is a subject for further research.
The details about the scriptwriting process come from Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.