Experiences of war
James Jones, whose novels vividly depict war and military life, was the Angry Young Man of American Literature in the post-World War II era. RANDOR GUY takes a look at Jones' works.
"Gentlemen rankers out on a spree/Damned from here to eternity/ God have mercy on such as we/Yah Bah Yah!"
WITH these lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem on the flyleaf, begins one of the most exciting, thrilling and disturbing novels about war. Published in 1951 by a writer making his debut, it exploded on the American literary scene topping the bestseller lists for months, and forged ahead to win the National Book Award. Critics raved about the power and sledgehammer punch of the book. The writer transferred his experiences as soldier, and worked for six long years before he was satisfied with his brainchild. Such a blockbuster book was From Here To Eternity, and the new entrant to the world of American literature was James Jones.
The American writer described war and military life, its stresses and strains, pain, pressures and sadistic pleasures, demands and dangers, and the ultimate futility of the "ignoble human strife" in his many novels. His most famous is, of course, From Here To Eternity initially considered "unfilmmable" because of its disturbing, vitriolic content, raw sex and language. Columbia Pictures, however, grabbed the book and the talented screenwriter Daniel Taradash worked hard on the screenplay.
The film released in 1953 was a major box-office hit around the world and won eight Oscar Awards including the Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Screenplay. Frank Sinatra won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The singer's career was then down in the dumps and the award helped him stage a sensational comeback. The famous love scene of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster created film history. It was something daring and shocking in the comparatively conservative 1950s! Jones' second novel was again a reworking of the earlier theme. A soldier and an aspiring writer, whose career has been upset by the intervening war, returns to his hometown to pick up the bits. Frustrated and yet ambitious, he works on his writing career and is inspired by a young woman he meets. Jones worked on Some Came Running for seven long years before it saw the lights of the bookstores. As expected, the successful novel was made into a movie under the same title in 1957 directed by the noted filmmaker Vincente Minnelli with Frank Sinatra in the lead role supported by Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin. Upset by the attitude of the American establishment towards minorities, James Jones left the United States and relocated to Paris where he lived for 18 long years. He was an eyewitness to the 1968 Paris Students Riots, which resulted in The Merry Month of May (1970). It won much critical praise for its portrayal of Paris, its pluses and minuses and also the causes and consequences of the student unrest.
Jones went back to war experiences again and wrote a novel about raw soldiers in Guadalcanal. He called it The Thin Red Line based on his statement that "there is only a thin red line between sanity and war". This novel was a rehash of his From Here To Eternity. The same characters appeared under different names and disguises. amply proving the famous statement of the celebrated filmmaker Elia The novel was not only a bestseller but was filmed twice, in 1964 and again in 1998 proving that war and its various features, the bad and the ugly are always popular ingredients for cinema.
Jones expressed his stance regarding wars in this novel. He wrote, "This was war? There was no superior test of strength here, no superb swordsmanship, no bellowing Viking heroism, and no expert marksmanship. This was only numbers. He was being killed for numbers. Why, oh why, had he not found and taken to himself that clerkish desk-job far in the rear which he could have had?"
Another novel that Jones wrote The Pistol was again based on his experiences at Pearl Harbour on the day of the Japanese attack.
The continuing popularity of James Jones was proved when, during 1998, a movie was made on his life during the Paris years. Written by his daughter Kaylie Jones as a novel Soldier's Daughter, it was adapted for the screen and directed by James Ivory of the Ivory-Merchant team. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala also worked on the script. The movie "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" attracted attention.
James Jones has been popular ever since his debut. Back home from Paris in 1975, he lectured at some universities in America and also worked on a novel, The Whistle. Sadly it turned out to be his last. He passed away in May 1977 leaving it incomplete and his friend Willie Morris completed the novel working from the departed writer's notes and discussions with him. The Whistle was published posthumously in 1978.
Jones has been described as the Angry Young Man of American Literature of the Post-Second World War and is held in high esteem by critics and lay readers and his books are read today. One can certainly say that his fame and name will continue to glow "un-dimmed from here to eternity"!
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