Forward March
Documentary details Alabama author's life, war experiences

By KATHERINE VEACH
BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD

Decades before the famed protests of the Vietnam War and today's protests of the war in Iraq, an anti-war voice drew the attention of literary critics.

Mobile-born author William March's 1933 autobiographical book "Company K" detailed his experiences as a volunteer Marine in World War I, as well as telling of his life after the war.

Fifty years after March's death in 1954, Alabama-born filmmaker Robert Clem has taken the novel and turned it into a feature-length film called "Company K." In addition, Clem created a documentary about March's life called "William March/Company K," which premieres this weekend at Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.

In making the documentary, Clem used scenes from the forthcoming "Company K" as well as scenes from March's most famous work, the novel-turned-Broadway play-turned-blockbuster movie "The Bad Seed." Filmed in 1956, it's the story of an eight-year-old girl who has no sense of right and wrong and commits a string of murders.

Clem said that the feature-length "Company K" was almost like a documentary in itself, since the book was so autobiographical. But in making it, he felt the need to make an accompanying narrative documentary.

Not all homecoming parades and ticker tape, March's life after World War I was riddled with bouts of depression and guilt. He saw the harshness of war first-hand, impressing on his writing an anti-war sentiment.

Clem had never heard of William March until a friend suggested he read "Company K." Clem had been working on projects involving Southern writers for years, including a 1997 NPR radio drama series centered on noted author William Faulkner called "Faulkner Centennial" broadcast in 55 countries.

"I was just enthralled by it," he said. "It's an amazing book of fiction and a work about war. I was really proud he was an Alabamian. It was a terrific, experimental book that was very truthful about war."

Keeping with his emphasis on Southern writers, Clem decided to make a movie of "Company K." And this desire wasn't just as a filmmaker — it was also as a Southerner.
"Being an Alabamian, I thought I really wanted to do a project that let people know who William March was," he said. "The main purpose was to explore this author and bring him attention."

That's a pretty tall order, since the once critically hailed March has since faded into obscurity.

"He was certainly considered, especially in the early part of his career, as an up-and-coming writer of short stories, and was a well-respected writer early on," said Christopher Metress, a professor of English at Samford University.

Metress said that though March's novels were well-received by other writers, his fame has dimmed over time. He also said that he once bought a book of the collected works of William March, and the bookstore owner told him it had sat on the shelves for three years before he purchased it.

"You'll rarely see him mentioned in any histories of American literature," he said. "And even in histories of Southern literature, it's unlikely you'll see anything about him."

Using funding from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Clem took on the task of re-creating "Company K," the toughest part being the staging of the battle scenes.

"I had contacted the March estate, but I didn't know how I was going to recreate some of the scenes," he said.

Fortunately, a Pennsylvania group helped out with the battle scenes. Clem found a group of World War I re-enactors who had its own battlefield and helped with the staging of the fighting for "Company K."

He said that "Company K" was different from other books of its time because it was so autobiographical, yet it was different in its presentation of war.

"It really shows us that too often, we think about the soldiers who are killed fighting a war and overlook the people who survive, then must come back to their civilian lives as changed people," Clem said.

" 'Company K' shows us that the war is not over when the fighting is over, at least in the minds of some of the soldiers who participate in it."