Paths of Glory is an amazing film. In it, Kubrick attacks the war mentality with astounding clarity. Through the hypocrisy of the men in charge, the heroism of the leading man, the authenticity of the everyday soldiers, and most importantly his camera movements, Kubrick shows us exactly what is wrong with the way war is waged. Though it seemed odd to me he actually had a hero in this film, the themes he is presenting are very similar to Dr. Strangelove.
The film is often described as an anti-war film, and while that is probably true, it seems like a bit of an over simplification to me. I saw it more as Kubrick taking issue with how war is conducted in this particular case, which of course may be true in others. It doesn’t seem to me as if he concerning himself with ending all war, just making sure that the people in charge don’t behave as abominably as they do here. Though that can be turned around as well. He could be trying to say that the situation of war brings out these things in people. Even though I say the film has a hero, he ultimately is not able to do much good. He tries to fight against the war machine, but does he try hard enough? This interestingly comes back to how the generals view the soldiers, or at least how they say they do.
Paths of Glory’s opening scene is nothing short of genius. It shows two French generals, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Paul Mireau (George Macready), talking about taking over “the anthill.” We never really find out exactly what the anthill is or what it means to the war effort, and this is a genius move. Nobody seems to be focused on taking the anthill because it will help them win the war; everyone has ulterior motives. The real significance of it is lost in their pettiness. Broulard outranks Mireau, and selects him personally for this impossible assignment. He falters at first, until Broulard offers a promotion. The camera has been following the two of them as they walk around the room the whole time, but stops this as soon as Mireau accepts the assignment. The camera refuses to follow them any further, depicting Kubrick’s point of view. As they walk farther and farther away from the stationary camera, they walk farther and farther away from morality.
Next Mireau visits the troops. He talks idly with most of the men until he comes upon one who happens to be shell shocked. He shows no mercy, slapping the man, sending him to another outfit, and calling him a coward in front of everyone. All throughout the film we hear stuff from Mireau about how he cannot tolerate cowardice from any of his men under any circumstances. He believes he is a good soldier, especially because he visits the front lines like this. It’s one thing to visit and another thing to fight. He assures us that he’s fought bravely in the past, but who knows if that’s true or not? This man’s hypocrisy and insensitivity only grow as the film goes on. He selects Col. Dax’s (Kirk Douglas) group to lead the attack. It’s interesting that he uses a lot of the same techniques to convince Dax as Broulard used to convince him. Failure is not an option. Even admitting the possibility of failure is not an option. Dax raises a few concerns but has little choice but to do what he says. Dax sends three men out that night as scouts, and the drunken lieutenant in charge, Roget (Wayne Morris), leaves both of his men to die. Only one does. The survivor, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), confronts him about it but gets nowhere. The next day, they try, and fail, to take the anthill. Some of the men won’t even advance, but it really doesn’t matter as the ones that do don’t get very far anyway. Dead bodies drop back into the trenches moments after they emerged to fight.
Mireau is watching comfortably from afar. When the camera is on the battle itself, the noise is deafening. There’re explosions, Dax’s whistle, guns going off; it’s really loud. Kubrick cuts to Mireau and the screechingly loud noise stops. He’s safe and completely isolated from the battle. Kubrick shows us the view out of Mireau’s viewfinder as well. Not only can he not hear the painful noise of the battle, he can’t see it properly either because he’s so far away and there are measurement lines in the way. From this safe position, he is infuriated that the troops are not advancing fast enough. So infuriated, that he orders another group to fire on Dax’s men. Thankfully, he can’t without a written order to do so.
Mireau is outraged that these cowardly soldiers didn’t get his promotion for him. He vows to make an example by court martialling and executing one hundred of them. In an almost surreal scene, Broulard manages to talk him down to three. It’s supposed to be an example, but it seems a bit like revenge as well. Dax volunteers to defend the men, as he is also one of the best criminal attorneys in France. The three men are chosen unfairly, though really to choose anyone to be made an example of is in itself unfair. Paris is chosen because of what he knows about Roget’s own cowardice, another is chosen by lot, and the last is chosen because he is a “social undesirable.” Whatever that means. This is Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), and the helplessly pathetic expression on his face during the court martial is perfect.
Kubrick, as he does a lot throughout this film, exhibits strict control over the camera during the court martial. I don’t think it stops moving for the entire scene. When each witness is being questioned, Kubrick uses a high angle shot off to one side. They are in an uncomfortable position in the frame. He positions the camera from the point of view of the judge/jury (not quite sure what the military term is for this) when the prosecutor is questioning the witnesses and making his closing arguments. You can see the backs of their heads as the prosecutor speaks. When Dax questions them and makes his closing arguments, Kubrick positions the camera from behind the accused. You know which side they are on. The camera stalks back and forth as the two lawyers are speaking and walking back and forth. The room they are holding this in is very large and elaborate, and depending on whether Kubrick places the camera towards the back of the room, the whole court martial seems small and tiny. The large room also changes the sound. Sometimes the echos can seem to amplify what they are saying (if Kubrick is in close), and others they seem to diminish it (if he’s farther away). It’s a brilliant scene, but there’s no happy ending to it.
The performances throughout the film are very strong. Kirk Douglas captures the idealism and bravery of Colonel Dax perfectly, while also subtly hinting that he may not be as good as he appears. At a few key moments when he is speaking out against the generals’ treatment of the men, his voice goes weak and he sounds as if he might cry. At first I was prepared to write that he was a one dimensional character but that it didn’t matter because he was a good man the movie needed to have in the midst of all these horrible ones. That is not true. He is able to convey that his weakness is that he has to follow orders like everybody else. I believe he does his best to help his men, but his best isn’t good enough. He works at it by the book for the most part, when to be a perfect hero he would have needed to work outside of it. Sometimes failure really isn’t an option, ironically enough. George Macready was the other standout as Mireau. He embodied his character perfectly. I hated him, and sweared at him periodically throughout the film because he was so contemptible.
The more I think about it, the more I realize this is a truly great film. Kubrick is masterful all the time, but for some reason I really noticed it here. His camera movements and placement were so deliberate and brilliant I couldn’t look away. The lighting was also very beautiful, though in its case I couldn’t figure out what it represented as well as the camera movements. The direction brought the required amount of outrage to the story; I could tell that Kubrick felt strongly about it. He made me feel just as strongly. The amount of outrageously immoral behavior in the film is so great that I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. Nevertheless, it is based on a true story. This type of thing did happen in the French military during WWI, and in those of other countries as well. It’s appalling to think about, and Kubrick captures this perfectly in one of his best films.
“There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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