Friday, July 18, 2008

Alistair MacLean and The Human Cost of War

by Barbara D'Amato


I was reminded of Alistair MacLean a few weeks ago when the Thrillerwriters put out a query for suggestions for naming their awards after a writer in the field. I doubt that they will name them after MacLean. He’s not remembered much anymore.

Which is a horrible loss to readers. I was reminded of him again last week when Patti Abbott asked me to come up with a novel for her blog Pattinase’s Forgottten Books.

HMS ULYSSES [1955] was the first novel Alistair MacLean wrote, and it’s a remarkable achievement. He had many later successes among twenty-eight novels—The Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, Breakheart Pass, Goodbye California, When Eight Bells Toll, and many more. Many were made into movies, but HMS Ulysses remains his very best.

MacLean had served in the Royal Navy from 1941 through the end of the war, as Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Torpedo Operator, and saw action in the north Atlantic, escorting carrier groups in operations against targets in the arctic and off the coast of Norway, later in the Mediterranean for the invasion of France and after that in the Far East, in Burma, Maylaya, and Sumatra. His brother Ian, who contributed data for his books, was a Master Mariner.

HMS Ulysses throbs with authenticity. I read it at least twenty-five years ago and it still produces a deep chill when I think of it. Not an easy book, often grim, always real, it is the tale of a light cruiser, put to sea to guard an important convoy heading for Murmansk. The convoy runs into crisis after crisis--German warships, an arctic storm, attacks from U-boats beneath, and from the Luftwaffe overhead. Slowly thirty-two ships are reduced to five. Then the Ulysses is called on to do the impossible--

As a depiction of the human cost of war, HMS Ulysses has never been surpassed. Critics have ranked it with The Cruel Sea [Monsarrat] and The Caine Mutiny [Wouk], but I think in open-eyed, unsparing truth, as well as sheer suspense, it is superior to both.

This is a good time to be thinking about the cost of war. So my question is—what war novels have made an impact on you?

16 comments:

steve z. said...

Book: although war is only part of the story, Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. The section about Bardamu's (the narrator's) experiences in World War I is amazing.

Movie: Kubrick's Paths of Glory. I haven't read the novel (by Irving Cobb), but it's supposed to be great, too.

August West said...

I always was amazed by the prose novel "Beach Red" (1945) by Peter Bowman. Also, I regard highly "The Sand Pebbles" (1962) by Richard McKenna.

Unfortunately, there are times we must go to war...

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I almost chose to write about Alistair MacLean, but would have selected BEAR ISLAND.

It's tough. My favorite MacLean varies from year to year.

Stephen

Barbara D'Amato said...

Journey to the End of Night, Paths of Glory, Beach Red, The Sand Pebbles -- thanks. I've read only one of these and glad to know about the others. And Stephen, yes, Bear Island is great, isn't it?

Maryann Mercer said...

We had someone in the bookstore just a couple of weeks ago asking about Alistair MacLean. He and I talked about his writing for maybe ten minutes and wished he were still readily available. My own favorite was Partisans, a great book about war and betrayal. I still enjoy reading about WWII, fiction or non. A customer recommended Alan Furst to me (he called it war noir) and I recommended Operation Jedburgh to him. War & Remembrance by Wouk made a huge impact on me, as did Leon Uris's Mila 18, and for suspense no one did it better than Helen McInnis in Assignment in Brittany.
As for movies, The Sand Pebbles ranks high as does Casablanca-not military but still a good portrayal of how war affects everyday people. And Proudly We Hail is a good one as well.
Thanks Barb for reminding me that I need to haunt the library this raining Saturday morning and see if I can track down MacLean and a few others.

Diane said...

"The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" I've read several times each. And let's not forget "Slaughterhouse-Five" - I believe Vonnegut was a big fan of Celine, also. Switching wars, Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" made me want to read everything ever written about the Civil War.

Now I must add things to my wishlist...

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, Thanks for this post. My husband served in the Royal Navy during WW II, and some of his buddies were on the Murmansk run. I'm racing of to get HMS Ulysses--I know he'll be gripped by the story.

Sara Paretsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete said...

Joesph Heller's Catch-22, which reinforced my belief in the utter absurdity and futility of war, while at the same time making me laugh my ass off.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, Maryann and Diane. Good suggestions. I see I have some reading to do.

And Sara--I'd be interested to know what he thinks of it.

Pete, it's remarkable how funny Catch-22 is, and yet so unblinking . . .

Dana King said...

Agree completely with SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and CATCH-22. The book that may have had the most impact on my perception of war is DAS BOOT, by Lothar-G√ľnther Buchheim, which was also made into an excellent movie.

Sara Paretsky said...

Erasmus wrote that "war is sweet to him who never saw one." I think the books-not novels-that have driven that point home most to me were Chaim Grade's "My Mother's Sabbath Days," Levi's "Survival at Auschwitz," and "In Memory's Kitchen.

Violette Severin said...

Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five are the only ones I have read. I don't like war books. I had to read these 2 when I was in school.

Carolyn said...

All the Horatio Hornblower novels.

Ali Karim said...

Alistair MacLean has been credited by so many contempary writers as an influence that his presence in the thrillerworld can never be underestimated

BREAKHEART PASS
CIRCUS
GUNS OF NAVARONE
THE DARK INTRUDER
FEAR IS THE KEY

I could go on and on...but I defy anyone not to be bowled over by PUPPET ON A CHAIN

Ali

bookwitch said...

Thank you for this. I grew up on MacLean, and could re-read his books endlessly. My children have seen and enjoyed the films, but wouldn't dream of reading the books, because now there is so much else for teenagers wanting excitement.

I'll have to do a Maclean post on my children's books blog.