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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1957)

4. Paths of Glory

“Paths of Glory” began as a novel, written by Humphrey Cobb. The story was based off a real incident in World War I, where four French soldiers were executed for cowardice. Later, the book was adapted to stage, its anti-war message proving unpopular. As a boy, Kubrick read the novel and it made an impression on him. After “The Killing,” Kirk Douglas expressed an interest in working with Kubrick. Kubrick brought him “Paths of Glory” as a possible project. Douglas admitted the film probably wouldn't make any money but decided the material was too important. He was right. Like the prior stage adaptation, “Paths of Glory” didn't connect with audiences. In time, it would be reevaluated as Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece.

The year is 1916 and World War I rages on. Blood and death fill the trenches of Europe. In a protected chateau, a pair of generals devise a suicide mission to take “The Anthill,” a much-sought piece of German land. A colonel named Dax is left to carry out the mission. As expected, the mission is a massacre, most of the French soldiers dying in the charge. The remaining soldiers refuse to march to their death. This infuriates the general, who wants to fire on his own men. When this plan is refused, he instead decides to try three men for court marshal, to be put to death if found guilty. Dax argues for the men's innocence, against the stubborn incompetence of his superiors.

“Paths of Glory” is one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. It's been said that it's impossible to make a truly anti-war film, as war is an inherently exciting action to portray. Maybe so but Kubrick comes awfully close. The director emphasizes how terrifying combat is. The soldiers are frequently brave but are always scared. The film's central thesis is laid out in a brief scene of two soldiers, talking in the trenches before falling asleep. One solider outright says that everyone is afraid to die. By focusing so clearly on the humanity of those involved, “Paths of Glory” makes it clear that the very act of war – asking someone to die for any cause – is inhumane.

Inhumane and stupid. Something the film especially criticizes are the generals and military leaders that tell soldiers to march off and die. The film begins, not on the battlefield, but in the comfort of an administrative building. There, generals in uniforms covered with medals, in a relaxed manner, decide to send men to their deaths. Later, they nonchalantly devise a random poll to determine which men will be executed, calmly and without much concern. The film is highly critical of military leaders like this, portraying them as avaricious and ignorant. They are more concerned with maintaining appearances than protecting their soldiers' lives, with projecting childish concepts of “bravery.” This is why they threaten to fire on their own men, why they can't conceive of challenging authority for any reason other than getting a promotion. “Paths of Glory” portrays war as horrible but saves must of its venom for those at the top.

Probably the most effective tool “Paths of Glory” employs in de-glamourizing war is how filthy it makes the battlefield look. The trenches, as they were in real life, are damp. It often rains, making sure the area is even more waterlogged. Characters are often streaked with mud and ash. More than once, the horrible stench is mentioned. The battlefield is always cloudy and overcast. When the soldiers die, they do so with blood on their shocked, unmoving, horrified faces. The surroundings are desolate. Bombs are often hear exploding in the distant. The film goes out of its way to emphasize the reality of trench warfare: Filthy, miserable, and awful.

Kubrick's techniques have continued to evolve over his first three features. “Paths of Glory” is the first of Kubrick's film that feels like it belongs to him one hundred percent. The film features most of the director's most famous trademarks. There's a long tracking shot through the trenches early on, establishing how miserable a location that is. This is in comparison to the scenes set in courts and offices. Kubrick often utilizes wide shots here, looking down on the action like a scrutinizing scientist. Yet close-ups are also featured. “Paths of Glory” contains maybe the first instance of the Kubrick Stare: Kirk Douglas, his face shadowed, looks up from under a heavy brow, infuriated and angered by those around him.

The most impressive visual feat Kubrick pulls off in “Paths of Glory” is the sequence devoted to the charge to the front. The scene cuts between brilliantly executed long shots and closer shots of soldiers dying, tossed by explosions. It's a spellbinding moment, because of the technical expertise on-screen. The scene flows with a powerful sense of motion, drawing the viewer in. Yet it's also a horrifying sequence, as it puts the viewer right in the middle of combat. We feel the shattering power of the blast. Nearly every soldier around Dax is cut down, quickly and without mercy.

“Paths of Glory's” Colonel Dax was an ideal part for Kirk Douglas. Douglas' frequently came across on-screen as the thinking man's hero. His cleft chin and iconic jawline gave him a suitably heroic appearance, seeing him often cast in adventure films. Yet Douglas always brought a compassionate and thoughtful quality to his protagonists. This is especially apparent in Dax. Douglas spends the entire movie, hoping that empathy and common sense will proceed. Up until the end, he attempts to keep hope. After the soldiers are executed, Douglas' unleashes rage on the commanding officers, a deeply cathartic moment. Douglas' Dax is a rare hero, one that stands for his fellow man, for loyalty and reason.

Opposing him is one of the most simpering, infuriating villains in cinema history. General Mireau is played by George Macready. Mireau's establishing character moment occurs early on, when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier, demands the clearly traumatized man's condition doesn't exist, and orders him to be taken away. Every one of Mireau's actions are petty. He demands the cannon operators fire on his own soldier when they start to retreat from the Anthill. Mireau's performance might appear to be over-the-top but the character is so chilling precisely because it's not overdone. Evil like this – mundane evil motivated by greed and ego – is all too real.

The film's cast is excellent, over all. The actors playing the condemned men are especially impressive. Ralph Meeker, sporting a distinctive scar through the film's second half, seems to maintain his composure at first As the days before the execution stretch on, his strength begins to weaken. When faced with a Champlain, he has some choice words for the man. Joe Turkel's Private Arnaud stands before the court, chosen at random to die despite a lauded war record. Turkel's indignation at suffering this fate clear, up until he's even robbed of that by an injury. Lastly, Timothy Carey's performance as Private Ferol is heartbreaking. At first sardonic, Ferol unravels more and more, as the date of the execution draws closer, exposing a raw humanity.

The biggest blow against the concept of a heroic war that “Paths of Glory” makes is the idea that there's any glory, any dignity, in death. Kubrick draws out the execution as long as possible. We see the condemned men walk slowly to the shooting gallery. Carey's Ferol spends the entire walk crying out, weeping, collapsing into an emotional wreck. He faces death like a real human being: Terrified and desperate. He is still weeping when the bullets hit him. There's no pomp or circumstance to the deaths themselves. The rifles cry out and the men collapse. Kubrick portrays the death as senseless and ugly, which is exactly what they are.

“Paths of Glory” is a grim film but not an entirely pessimistic one. The film's final scene is uniquely powerful. Douglas' Dax looks into a rowdy bar, the soldiers yelling at a captured German girl brought out to sing. Yet the girl's beautiful voice eventually silences them. Soon, the men are singing along with her, some of them shedding tears. It's a scene that suggests empathy isn't impossible, that the cruelty of war does not necessarily flatten a sense of compassion. Unlike the tacked on happy ending of “Killer's Kiss,” the slightly hopeful conclusion of “Paths of Glory” is earned and powerful.

Like many of Kubrick's films, “Paths of Glory” has only grown in esteem over the years. Initially, the film was controversial, some contemporary writers bristling at its obvious anti-war themes. The film was even banned in France, due to its depiction of the country's military. In time, “Paths of Glory” would be recognized as the startling condemnation of war that it is. While sometimes overlooked due to the high place in film history Kubrick's later films occupy, the movie is certainly one worth seeking out. Few other films draw attention to the senselessness of war with such grace and power. [Grade: A]

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