A Couple on Kubrick: Paths of Glory - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Feb/120

A Couple on Kubrick: Paths of Glory

 "Whose word do you think they're going to believe?
Let me put it another way, whose word do you think they're going to accept?"

Andrew and I continue our foray into Kubuary with Stanley Kubrick’s film about the absurdity of war and the callous nature of some military personnel toward human lives.  No, I’m not talking about Dr. Strangelove; I’m talking about Paths of Glory (1957) starring Kirk Douglas and George Macready.  Paths of Glory is a more serious take on war than Strangelove, but its serious nature works to the film’s advantage.  If I wanted to give an overall impression of the Paths, I would say that it is a direct and enjoyable film with dynamic performances and great cinematography.

The odd thing about this movie is that if I tried to describe it, it does not seem like an outstanding movie.  The movie is an antiwar movie with soldiers ordered into impossible odds, war hawk generals with facial scars, and the one handsome general who is willing to stand up for what is right and will tell war hawk generals to go to hell.  It sounds like a cliché-riddled movie with a been-there-done-that plot, yet Paths of Glory is a much better movie than that for a few reasons.

One reason is the acting. The main protagonist of the movie is Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas. Having never seen a movie starring Kirk Douglas (though being familiar of him via Spartacus spoofs and Powdered Toast Man), it was a delight watching Kirk Douglas perform. He plays Dax as the definition of a good man: Strong, confident, ethical, smart, and dynamic, without venturing into farce territory.  There’s a reason why Kirk Douglas is considered one of the best actors and I can see why that is now.

The main antagonist is Brigadier General Paul Mireau, played by George Macready, and I just loved this character. He’s overly patriotic, saying such lines as “Show me a patriot and I’ll show you an honest man”. He thinks all soldiers should go into battle with an unyielding zeal to die regardless of impossible odds. He says that there is no such thing as “shell shock” and if a battle did not go well, it was because the men “…didn’t try hard enough.” He tells colonel Dax that his men “…died very beautifully.” He’s pompous, arrogant, unethical, and prideful. He was my favorite character of the movie. Macready’s performance could have been too wacky or silly, but he never ventures into goofy territory. His performance was so good that I had to wonder if the trope of a villain with a facial scar was solidified by, if not outright inspired by, Macready’s performance and his very pronounced and very real facial scar.

The last thing I will mention will be the cinematography. It is almost a cliché to call a Kubrick movie well shot, but every shot of this movie was excellent. It was really pleasure just to behold this movie. The camera work was fluid and natural, allowing smooth shots of men walking in the trenches (it reminds me of The West Wing) or smooth tracking shots during the battle scenes.

All in all, I enjoyed this movie. What about you, Andrew?

I love the hell out of this movie.  More than that, it's probably my favorite Kubrick film (as much as I do enjoy the easily comparable Strangelove).  In it's tight run-time it manages to completely dispel the notion that war is of any fun whatsoever.  The survivors are not rewarded, we only see one battle and it is a slaughter, and all the while Kubrick keeps suffocating us in what it means to fight all the time.

When you call the cinematography excellent, it doesn't go quite far enough into how much of a fluid nightmare the whole thing is.  Watching the battlefield scenes is one thing but still a marvel to behold.  Instead of cutting out or giving us an escape by distracting our attention he follows Douglas through the hills and barbed wire.  All at once we're struck by just how physically exhausting being at war is.  But the exhaustion doesn't stop on the battlefield, that same fluid camera follows them into the creepily empty aristocratic housing where the framing becomes tight and constricting.  The perfect visual for the slaughter the French Generals are about to inflict on their own troops.

The sounds are another absolute wonder in this film.  There is no sense to be made from the constant whirring of bullets and screams during the troops attempt to take the anthill.  Combined with the visuals it seems, initially, to be a straightforward march but those sounds grow louder and the screen murkier until we wonder where the enemy is at all.  Once again, it provides a fine contrast to the hollow echo that resounds through each line of dialogue at the "treason" hearings, reverberating again that the Generals of the world only want dead bodies in the place of surrender.

The visuals help make this one of the only movies Kubrick made that I can easily defend against the "thinker rather than feeler" mantra.  This is one angry movie, helped along that line by the barely held together performance by Kirk Douglas you mentioned.  What's most interesting is that even though Douglas' role seems quite honorable and noble, he's just another soldier on the battlefield doing what he has to do to survive.  He is no better person than Macready's General, he is just placed in a situation where the option for survival is one which puts him in the honorable position.

Kubrick does not, for a second, let us think that what the Brigadier General is doing is right but doesn't make a case for the Colonel being a true moral superior.  For example, the main thrust of the second act has the Colonel defending his troops, but how else is he planning on winning a war if his troops are shot dead by their own leaders?  The most damning evidence comes at the end when he is in possession of a number of facts that would humiliate the higher echelon of the military, but instead decides to remain silent and go back into battle.

I like this approach, because it illustrates something I believe very deeply, and that is war does not make anyone a better person.  It forces compromises otherwise good people might never have made and gives evil people a chance to flex violent muscle which would have never been available otherwise.  Before I pontificate on some of the amazing supporting cast, do you have anything you'd like to add or am I totally off-base?

I suppose you have point saying that war corrupts the good and empowers the immoral, but I will have to disagree with you on the point that Kirk Douglas’s character was just a soldier on a morality matter.

During the trial, Douglas acted as the (very adept) defense for the soldiers in spite of his superiors insisting that the soldiers do not have one and pointing out where the court is failing to provide a fair trial.  He defends his men not just because he needs his troops, but because he cares about his troops.  When Mireau is describing the attack on Anthill and the massive losses, Douglas is deeply affected.  Sure, he understands there are casualties of war (it is regrettable, but troops will die), but he’ll be damned if his men are going to die by the hundreds for no good reason.  He sticks up for them because other men with power want to just send the troops into the slaughter.

I guess for me, it is strange to watch a movie like Paths of Glory because the military is just a baffling thing.  People in the military have to think about massive troop casualties as an inevitability, but try really hard to minimize the casualties as much as possible.  Decent people are sent to die and that is something the troops and the leaders have to deal with every day.  It is as though human beings are close to being disposable.  It is a strange thing to behold.

What makes this movie interesting to me is that it shows everything a leader should not be.  Leaders should not engage in a fruitless and impossible battle for the publicity and then turn around and blame the troops for something that is not their fault because (I’m paraphrasing) “We should have to endure any more punishment than we actually deserve.”

That's an interesting point at the end, because I don't believe the Brigadier General was trying to capture the anthill for publicity (though his superior was certainly encouraging it to).  Rather he was trying to rekindle the same kind of bloodlust that he once felt for war.  He's duplicitous, violent, and willing to turn on his own troops in an instant, but he is most definitely a soldier.  A poorly-focused soldier, but a soldier nonetheless.

Easy as it is to like the Colonel and hate the General, the real emotional impact comes from the final hours of the three soldiers who have been "randomly" picked to die.  It goes to the self-serving nature of all of the officers (and I still don't exempt Douglas' Colonel from this) that each of the sacrificial fighters is clearly serving another agenda.  The best of these is the sad Jewish soldier played by Timothy Carey, crying for a God who isn't going to save him, in his long slow march toward the firing line at the end.

It's a moment so sad and honest it almost distracts from the dark hilarity of the other unconscious soldier who has to be propped up just to be shot.  Just a reminder that Paths of Glory is still funny, but you have to have night vision to get through the darkness to the jokes.  Even the title has a dark irony to it, in that the supposed glory of the fight just leaves atrocities for the survivors and a slow, cold trip to the forgotten wastelands of memory for the dead.

A cheery thought to warm you up on these cold winter nights, huh?

Join us next week as Amanda and Andrew watch Spartacus and try desperately
not to think if this classic scene from The Critic.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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