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Comparison of "Arms and the Man" and "The Dirty Dozen"

Updated on October 20, 2016

George Bernard Shaw

Arms and the Man

"Arms and the Man"--A Farcical Comedy

Bernard Shaw’s "Arms and the Man" and the 1967 film "The Dirty Dozen"—productions with which the writer is most familiar and which most appeal to him among those from which he had to choose--offer the theater student a fascinating comparison on at least two levels. First, the play qualifies as a farcical comedy as a whole, while the film highlights a generous sprinkling of farcical characteristics amid all the serious fighting. Second, both productions jab at war’s romanticism and paint a portrait of unlikely heroism. Shaw effectively used this farce as anti-war propaganda by both poking fun at military romanticism and producing realistic heroes.

Shaw constructs "Arms and the Man" with plot devices characteristic of the farce. By definition, a farce is “a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay” (“Farce”). One way farce often accomplishes its aims is to make characters appear in disguise. For example, in the first act of this play Shaw introduces the Man, supposedly an escaped Serbian artillery officer taking up temporary “residence” in a Bulgarian lady’s bedchamber, holding the woman (Raina) at gunpoint. (A “highly improbable situation,” this reviewer would say). Anticipating his soon capture, the captain mentions that Raina’s state of relative undress would not be suitable attire for her to receive a visit from soldiers. Before she can retrieve her nightgown, however, the Man snatches it up and keeps it as a “better weapon than a revolver,” throwing his pistol down. Nevertheless, when more clamor transpires outside, the officer loses his intimidating manner toward her. Having discarded his gun, he now tosses Raina her cloak, and prepares for a saber fight. At this point, a grateful Raina-- highlighting another element of farce: the concealment of characters-- hides the captain behind a curtain, protecting him from Bulgarian soldiers intent on his capture.

After ensuring a soldier’s fruitless search by her deception, Raina learns that the Man is, in reality, a Swiss mercenary who “prefers chocolate creams to bullets.” Finding his actions somewhat lacking in manliness—not at all what her romantic notions tell her should characterize a military man -- Raina treats her captor with contempt until she hears about the cavalry “charge” and experiences the Man’s tactful responses toward its bumbling commander, her fiancé Sergius. Act I concludes with Raina referring to the sleeping Man as “the poor darling,” foreshadowing a typical Shavian twist—his predilection to rearrange the conventional outcomes of romantic comedies to suit his taste. Shaw has effectively depicted her as falling in love with the Man, a certain Captain Bluntschli, whom she will eventually marry instead of Sergius.

Shaw also constructs his play to advocate his causes. In "Arms and the Man" he purposes to destroy romantic idealism among the public by poking holes in the popular myths of military glory and heroism. The author realistically portrays Bluntschli as a veteran soldier who, in the opening scene, appears so shell-shocked that he shies nervously away from Raina when she suddenly jumps up after sitting unknowingly on his revolver. Furthermore, Shaw has his “Man” confess that his revolver is not loaded and that he is out of bullets. In addition, he shows the captain quaking in his boots when Raina confronts him about his childishness, placing him on the verge of tears when she scolds him. His depiction hardly fits the bill of a soldier in the popular mind, but does show how war adversely affects men.

Second, Shaw presents Raina as one who has romantic “dreams of glory” when she hears about the cavalry charge from Bluntschli. He calls the victorious commander, this “first one,” a “Don Quixote” type person, i.e., laughable, explaining that the latter charged into a battle with his men only to survive and win because his opponent lacked ammunition. When Bluntschli discovers that her Sergius is this fool, he tries to comfort Raina, rationalizing that “the Don” somehow learned about the wrong ammunition and knew that it was safe to charge. The news, however devastating, does not dash her fantastic notions.

Likewise, Catherine, Raina’s mother, shows excitement about the romantic charge. She manifests genuine hawkishness, becoming upset that Major Petkoff allowed Austrians to force him to make peace, though he was not even consulted in the negotiations. She expresses anger about peace, asserting that she would have annexed Serbia and made Alexander emperor of the Balkans. Shaw does not paint a pretty picture of those who revel in military glory.

Third, Sergius, a romantic aristocrat, admits that he is not able to continue his military service because he knows that his charge, though successful, exhibited the height of folly. He calls it “the cradle and the grave of his military reputation.” Shaw labels him a “clever, imaginative barbarian” who had internalized the Byronism of the age: a brooding on the failure to live up to ideals and a cynicism about human life. Clearly, Shaw’s portrayal of these characters supports his anti-romantic stance on war.

The Dirty Dozen

"The Dirty Dozen"

When "The Dirty Dozen" enters a comparison with Shaw’s play, we see that it shares farcical elements with "Arms and the Man." One such dramatic plot device involves characters appearing in disguise. Three particular incidents in the film show various masquerades aimed at poking fun at the romantic pretensions of the military. An especially humorous scene occurs when Private Pinkley (played by Donald Sutherland) poses as a general, and effectively humiliates Colonel Breed (portrayed by Robert Reed) in his attempt to sparkle before a commanding officer. The colonel does not fully acknowledge the trickery until a later episode.

The disguises continue as the whole band, challenged to capture “enemy” headquarters or “face the music” of having to complete their prison sentences, switch armbands in the war games scene and effectively take both sides in the conflict. By flouting regulations espousing fair play, Major Reisman (played by Lee Marvin) wins his personal battle against Colonel Breed and his superior, self-righteous attitude, seeing the fulfillment of that objective as more important than following the established rules.

A third example takes place as the soldiers parachute into Germany, dressed as enemy officers. Reisman and Wladislaw (played by Charles Bronson) appear in a roomful of generals and humorously (in some cases) hide their identities from unsuspecting Germans until Maggott’s implosion forces them to improvise. Surely, all three scenes accomplish their aim of poking fun at the established military of either army.

Another incident in the film highlights the plot device of character concealment. The scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Act 1 in "Arms and the Man," as Maggott (played by Telly Savalas) hides in a German lady’s bedchamber. Differences in the plots exist, of course. Maggott hides himself behind a curtain to prevent detection; the lady neither secretes him nor does she help him to escape at all, for at this point his presence is not yet known to German officers. The outcome of the two scenes is also different. Whereas Bluntschli falls asleep and later escapes with Catherine and Raina’s help, Maggott kills the German officer’s wife and then goes berserk, causing the mission’s timing to go awry. Nevertheless, in both productions a pivotal scene is successfully showcased.

"The Dirty Dozen" also shares with "Arms" the making of unlikely heroes. Shaw’s work demonstrates that the idealist hero, Sergius, is not only an incompetent leader, but also closer in class to Louka, an upwardly mobile house servant, than he realizes. On the other hand, Bluntschli--the realist man, the one labeled “the chocolate cream soldier,” a volunteer who deserted Sergius’s brigade—shows his superior ability by teaching both Bulgars and Serbs how to fight, calmly handling his relationship with Raina, and inheriting his father’s hotel chain. Likewise, "The Dirty Dozen" heaps scorn on the upright, play-by-the-rules military establishment headed by strait-laced Colonel Breed and hypocritical Brigadier General Denton (Robert Webber), and raises up twelve unlikely candidates for heroism: criminals who faced execution or hard labor in prison unless they volunteered for a suicide mission. For instance, the script takes a black man (Jefferson played by Jim Brown) who spouts in prison, “That’s your war, not mine,” and transforms him into a courageous soldier who plays an essential role in the mission’s success.

Overall, Shaw effectively used the farce genre as propaganda to support his anti-romantic stance on war. Humankind should view this dirty business realistically, not regard it necessarily as a glorious adventure, or portray it as a fabulous experience. Albeit, war does furnish the victor over tyranny with a sense of moral accomplishment that should not be regarded lightly. To treat war as unnecessary to engage in at all times for all reasons is both a foolish and dangerous position to take.

© 2015 glynch1

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