- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

NO MAN’S LAND

By Graham Greene

Hesperus, $20, 114 pages

REVIEWED BY KELLY JANE TORRANCE

A lot of novelists have fallen prey to the siren song of Hollywood. They have rarely been successful. The most famous example is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald, who drank himself to death chasing fame in California.

Graham Greene was something of an exception. The British writer never abandoned full-time novel-writing for the movie business. Nevertheless, he is probably best known outside literary circles for writing the screenplay for one of the greatest films of all time, “The Third Man.” The 1949 film starred Joseph Cotten, who in postwar Vienna investigates the death of his old friend Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles.

“The Third Man” was such a great success that Greene and the film’s director, Carol Reed, planned to team up again. But that third collaboration never took place. Greene developed a story treatment for a movie called “No Man’s Land” early in 1950, but Reed thought it was too similar to “The Third Man.” Not wishing merely to duplicate his past success, Reed cancelled the project.

Now readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of that decision. Hesperus Press has “rediscovered” and published “No Man’s Land,” along with another of Greene’s film treatments entitled “The Stranger’s Hand.”

Greene was special among screenwriters in that before he wrote a screenplay, he wrote an extended treatment which was basically a novella. Unlike most treatments, these works can be read on their own as literature. “The Third Man” novella has been available for years.

Now we have two more. Like “The Third Man,” both of these stories are set in disputed territory shortly after World War II. Greene loved conflict — religious, political, personal. These stories have elements of all three.

In “No Man’s Land,” Richard Brown is — like Greene himself — a British writer with a taste for danger. He claims merely to be vacationing in the Harz Mountains, right next to Germany’s Russian Zone. Then he crosses over, and we aren’t quite sure at first whether it’s to assuage his boredom or for more sinister purposes. As he makes his way to a popular Catholic shrine, stopping along the way for items to make him look like a believer, we begin to believe it’s the latter.

Brown is captured, despite the help he receives from a beautiful stranger. His captors are cruel, but he notices that one — Starhov — is a bit different. “The newcomer was in a green uniform with officer’s badges, a man of much his own age and much his own build,” Greene writes. “From his face you might have said, of much the same experience.”

Starhov and Brown share much in common — a love for Turgenev and that mysterious stranger. Had they met under other circumstances, they might have formed a real bond. “It was a very different Russia,” Brown says of the Turgenev tales in which men like these two could be friends. Now, political borders, not personal ones, are what count.

But perhaps the personal always trumps the political after all. Brown manages to escape. It may have been because Starhov was clumsy. Or it may have been that he couldn’t bear to destroy someone who loved the same things he did.

“There is something strange and sad, isn’t there, about a no man’s land — even when there’s only twenty yards of it. A place on this earth where nobody can ever build or sleep,” Brown muses. Sadder still is that human beings are responsible for creating so many of these spaces that keep them apart.

On the surface, “No Man’s Land” shares similarities with “The Third Man.” In many ways, however, Greene’s exploration of friendship, love, and trust is deeper in the unfilmed story. These issues are present, of course, in “The Third Man” — the plot hinges on one friend’s betrayal of another. “No Man’s Land” has a bit less excitement, but its plot is simpler and allows Greene’s ideas to have a more profound effect.

The other story in this volume, “The Stranger’s Hand,” was made into a film. The 1952 movie starred Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, both of whom also appeared in “The Third Man.” Here the disputed territory is Trieste, partly administered by Britain and America, partly by Yugoslavia. Roger Court is an eight-year-old sent to Venice to meet his father, a major in the Venezia-Giulia police. But Maj. Court never shows up and Roger, alone in a strange city, is set adrift.

“The Stranger’s Hand” may actually be the better work in this volume, except that it was finished by someone else. Greene gave his approval to the ending, written by screenwriter Guy Elmes. But it lacks Greene’s subtlety. He always managed to make his “entertainments,” as he called his spy stories, transcend the genre. His interest in the religious and political beliefs that keep human beings from properly connecting were present even in his lighter work.

That’s certainly true of the first 15,000 words of “The Stranger’s Hand.” Greene has a special sympathy for his young protagonist, understanding what the rest of us often forget: how deeply children can feel. He writes, “A child’s privacy is never quite secure: nobody even hesitates to intrude: privacy has to be guarded behind a locked door (‘how often have I told you not to turn the key?’) or in the centre of a hedge (‘we looked for you everywhere’).”

In between insights like this, there is plenty of tension. Because he witnesses the kidnapping of an enemy of Tito, Maj. Court is himself kidnapped. Both men are set to be hauled onto a Yugoslavian boat and dragged behind the Iron Curtain. Though Roger has ambivalent feelings for the father he barely knows, the resourceful boy aids the adults trying to find the kidnapped men.

“No Man’s Land” and “The Stranger’s Hand” may be small works in Greene’s prolific oeuvre. But in their examination of Greenian themes like faith and trust, they are just as worth reading as many of his better-known works.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink and arts and culture editor of Brainwash. She is also books columnist for The American Enterprise Online. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.

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