Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
--“Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard” by Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771)

I can think of three significant cinematic uses of “La Marseillaise,” the French National Anthem. Its appearance in Casablanca is defiantly patriotic, induced by Victor Laszlo in Rick’s CafĂ© to drown out the singing Germans. It’s sung by the French crowd supporting the Allied prisoner football team at the end of John Huston’s Victory. But Stanley Kubrick is the only film maker to take what might be the most patriotic national hymn and turn it into an ironic statement about patriotic duty.

The tune accompanies the opening credits to Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war masterpiece, Paths of Glory. The triumphant march calls forth images of patriots with fists raised proudly in the air, chins held high, but the story that follows not only refuses to provide a single moment of real patriotic fervor, but is a downright accusation that armies in wartime are morally blind and incapable of seeing soldiers as human beings.

Paths of Glory classifies soldiers in the army, in this case the French army during WWI, into two main groups: the high-ranking officers who enjoy illustrious accommodation in chateaus with occasional diverting balls; and the grunts in the trenches. A third group might be the regimental commanders and other mid-level officers who sit between the generals who wear dress uniforms replete with decorations and the cold dirty men in the trenches.

This gulf is established from the first scene of the film which has Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and Gen. Mireau (George Macready) enjoying a polite conversation in a stately banquet room. Broulard wants Mireau to send his division on what is ostensibly a suicide mission to take the German position known as the “Anthill.” Mireau balks at first until Broulard dangles a promotion in front of him. Kubrick’s camera follows the two around the massive room, emphasizing the ostentation of the setting and their tiny place within it, as Mireau contemplates the possibility and convinces himself that it’s not an impossible mission after all. Broulard doesn’t completely win over Mireau until he makes the suggestion that the division isn’t up to it. Mireau being a man of unabashed vanity can’t stomach the thought that his men are not fit and ready for battle and makes a promise to Broulard that will have consequences that echo throughout the rest of the film.

Mireau next has to convince Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the efficacy of the plan. Dax is pragmatic and honestly tied into the lives of his men in a way that Mireau only feigns. When Mireau walks through the trenches to greet ‘his’ men, we recognize immediately the spuriousness of his actions. His neatly pressed uniform hardly fits in with the grit and grime of the men who’ve been living for months on end in a muddy trench, taking artillery fire on a regular basis. Kubrick mirrors the long tracking shot through the trench later, but with Dax, whose uniform and face are nearly as dirty as the men. His walk amongst the soldiers before going into battle feels more honest, not least of all because he physically leads the men into the no man’s land between the two lines.

Of course the attack fails – not because of poor strategy, weak leadership or unwilling soldiers, but simply because trench warfare is a no-win method of fighting a war. The voiceover narration at the start of the film tells us that after the bulk of initial fighting was finished, the two armies dug in and formed lines that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. There they sat for many months in a battle of nerve and will. Which army can endure terrible hardship the longest? During the battle Mireau is aghast at the fact that one full company hasn’t even left their trench (the men can’t even climb out of the trench without taking fire) and orders the artillery to fire on them to drive them out. The artillery commander, following military protocol by the book, refuses without written confirmation of the order.

The commander’s refusal, humane though it seems, has little to nothing to do with the safety of his own countrymen. He says nothing about the morality of firing on his own men. His entire reason for refusal is that it’s a violation of the rules. This, too, is a kind of moral blindness – the reduction of life and death decisions to a book of regulations. Kubrick would later revisit this very subject matter, but with a dark satiric wit, in Dr. Strangelove, when Captain Mandrake is chastised by an American officer for destroying government property (a vending machine) to retrieve change to telephone the President so he can prevent nuclear war.

The second half of the film takes a sharp turn and focuses its attention on a court martial trial of three men for cowardice in the face of the enemy, the penalty for which is death. Mireau, who can’t stand that his orders were not followed to the letter and that his regiment let him down, wants to see someone else take the fall. Here we see the division between officers and enlisted men. No one of great importance will be held accountable. Not Gen. Broulard, who insisted on the attack. Certainly not Gen. Mireau, who knew it was a suicide mission. Not even Colonel Dax, who offers himself in place of the soldiers, is permitted to take the fall.

At first Mireau wants ten men from each regiment (100 in total) to be tried and executed as an example to the others. Dax asks why not just kill the entire division. To Mireau and Broulard that’s absurd, although Broulard is able to talk Mireau down to just three men as sufficient example. And so the three men are chosen: Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker), chosen by his superior, Lt. Roget, for fear he will testify against him for an incidence of cowardice; Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) because he is a “social undesirable”; and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel), a courageous soldier chosen by a drawing of lots.

Dax, formerly a defense attorney in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men, but the trial is a farce. Dax attempts to pleads with the jury to find their sense of decency and after the conviction he appeals to Broulard that he was not permitted to enter evidence into the trial; the prosecution failed to produce a single witness; and stenographic records of the trial were not kept. His protestations fall entirely on deaf ears. The generals need someone to blame for the failed offensive. Mireau does receive some comeuppance when Dax produces reports from several witnesses who testify to Mireau’s order to fire on his own men during the battle and Broulard, simply following the book much like our artillery commander, casually informs him there will have to be an inquest, of course.

Thankfully (as far as the story goes) there is no zero hour reprieve for the three men. They are coldly executed by firing squad, dispensed with through an absurd act of military justice. It is an act as absurd as the war itself, or at least the method of fighting it. Ultimately, the execution will not change the outcome of the attempt to take the Anthill, nor will it likely have any noticeable effect on the outcome of the war. So all the generals accomplished was the destruction of three innocent lives and a bit of saving face.

 Before watching Paths of Glory this time, I had completely forgotten about the famous closing moments. A large group of soldiers sit in a small tavern hooting and hollering at the stage as the proprietor brings out a shy young German woman (Susanne Christian, later Christiane Kubrick). She begins to sing, softly at first, while the men continue to shout catcalls at her. Slowly they begin to hear her and although they don’t understand the German folk song she sings, they respond to her innocence, her beauty and the lovely tones emanating from her throat. The camera cuts around the room showing the faces of several soldiers, their eyes transfixed (some with tears) on that woman who recalls perhaps a normal life not marred by death and destruction. I was surprised to find myself so moved by such a simple premise, but I would be remiss not to admit it.

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