NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.
Grade: 95 (A)
Stanley Kubrick is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and Paths of Glory is the film that, more than anything else, put him on the map. The tale of a miscarriage of justice during World War I, Paths of Glory is a case of a star, Kirk Douglas, standing by a story and a filmmaker he believed in. In Douglas’ words, “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it”. This is a story that Kubrick had to make, too, and it’s surely a great showcase for his technical bravura, his talent with actors, and bitter sense of irony. But it’s also the best case that the popular reading of Kubrick as a cold, unfeeling man with no sense of humanism isn’t just vastly oversimplified- it’s dead wrong.
1916: Europe is at war. Frustrated over the lack of progress in trench warfare, French General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) convinces General Paul Mireau (George MacReady) to order his men to charge against the German “Ant Hill”. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) knows that this is a fool’s game and that most of his men will be killed in the assault, but he has no choice but to order them forward. The attack is a failure: the men who leave the trenches are cut to ribbons, the survivors retreat, and several men, seeing the futility of the effort, do not charge. Enraged, General Mireau orders three innocent soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey) to be tried and executed for cowardice. A lawyer in civilian life, Dax valiantly defends the men, but he knows that they stand no chance.
The Killing proved Kubrick to be a judicious and intelligent filmmaker, but Paths of Glory ups the ambition and the bitter sense of irony. The film opens with an omniscient narrator informing the audience that the soldiers are at a quagmire, with thousands dead…and Generals Broulard and Mireau are in a gorgeous French chateau, sipping cognac in a pleasant atmosphere. Kubrick shows his mastery as a visual storyteller: depending on the closeness of the shot on General Broulard, he’s either speaking plainly and familiarly with Mireau (close shot, intimacy) or giving him an order (medium shot).
It’s a game of manipulation on Broulard’s part, but at least the two men have room to move and breathe as they talk, the camera roving about as they walk around the room. It’s done in part as a tribute to the recently deceased Max Ophuls, the great German director known for his fluid tracking shots, but it’s also a stark contrast to what we see when Kubrick cuts to the trenches. There’s no room to move, and there’s a sense of gritty realism as soldiers live in dirt and hold their wounds. And while Mireau moved freely and fluidly in the chateau, here a reverse tracking shot shows him dominating the camera, bluntly ordering men to their deaths. Futhermore, Kubrick’s knowledge of the psychology of movement comes through: the generals move from left to right, signifying dominance. The soldiers, as they climb the anthill, move right to left in a move that makes them look like they’re fighting an uphill battle- which they are in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one. Kubrick takes a remove to the situation: he knows this is bad, but he’ll let us figure that out for ourselves.
For the trials themselves, Kubrick portrays them as an absolute farce of justice, with the soldiers and Dax as men without a chance while the generals remain cold, removed, and in total control. The camera roves around as prosecutor Major Saint-Auben (Richard Anderson) questions the soldiers- he’s in control, he has freedom. The soldiers, meanwhile, are stuck in a corner of the frame, marginalized (note to Tom Hooper, a big Kubrick fan: this is how that’s supposed to work), and cannot move unless given permission. When Dax pleads the soldiers’ case, Kubrick uses a wide shot, showing a man pleading a case to what’s essentially an empty room. The chateau’s floor, meanwhile, is checkered like a chessboard. That speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
Kubrick had shown his genius in casting in The Killing, and Paths of Glory is an even better case. For the generals, manipulative and removed from the realities of war, Kubrick casts the regal MacReady, Menjou and Anderson as MacReady’s sycophant Major Saint-Auben to show us the coldness of their characters. He casts everymen Meeker, Turkel, and Carey as the three persecuted soldiers- there’s something relatable to the men, as if we’d meet them in everyday life, and our sympathies go towards them as they’re put through hell. Douglas, for his part, was never better than as the righteous Dax, a man whose pragmatism belies a tough-minded humanism. His outrage at man’s capacity for cruelty mirrors Kubrick’s own, and one can’t simply dismiss Kubrick as unfeeling if that righteous disgust exists. He’s more of a Dax than a Broulard.
There’s a sense of entrapment to the whole film, something Kubrick had hinted at in earlier films but brings full-on here. In the trenches, Dax marches on showing dominance, but he knows that there’s nowhere to go- if the men leave the trench, they’ll be killed. If they don’t, they’ll be seen as cowards. The look of grim determination on his face shows a man in a moral quagmire, with no breathing room whatsoever. It’s even worse for the three soldiers, decent men all thrown into a dungeon, chosen either because they were disliked (Carey), they had evidence against a commanding officer (Meeker), or by chance of a drawn lot (Turkel). Kubrick’s use of chiaroscuro is particularly effective here: the light outside shows just how cut off from freedom and from life they really are.
Kubrick had dealt with violence before as well, but the subject of war brings out the take-no-prisoners attitude in him. Gone is The Killing’s often fun sense of tough-guy fights and shootings. This is absolute hell: men in the trenches are practically falling apart from their injuries (as much as a 1957 film would allow, anyway). In one memorable sequence, Meeker’s Corporal Paris and another soldier, Lejeune, are ordered to accompany drunken Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) to the front. There, Roget accidentally kills Lejeune with a grenade and retreats to leave Paris to die. Lejeune’s body is burnt and bloodied, and the zoom in on his corpse has a heavy psychological effect on the audience. And yet Roget blames Paris, just days away from being tried for cowardice, for his fatal mistake.
Kubrick’s use of theatrical violence is horrifying as well. The charge towards the German Ant Hill is destined to fail, and it would be a hollow victory even if it succeeded- the war is still going on, and this isn’t going to change much of anything. But to satisfy the general’s egos and need for something to show, they’re forced forward. When the attack inevitably fails, General Mireau orders three men killed as a way to cover up his mistake- it wasn’t that it was an insurmountable challenge, you see, but the failure of a group of cowards, all diminished by Mireau as having “skim milk in their veins instead of blood”. Dax’s response: “it’s the reddest milk I’ve ever seen”.
That sense of dehumanization runs throughout Paths of Glory. It’s perhaps the defining theme in Kubrick’s work, and here it’s a case of character destruction and dehumanization by those in power in order to control. An early scene shows Mireau slapping a shell-shocked soldier, calling him a coward and claiming that “There’s no such thing as shell shock!”. He later calls the man a baby and refers to the men as stupid. The whole film works as a game, with Dax defending any sense of humanity the men have by calling their mistakes human, not stupid. Mireau later orders an artillery fire on his own regiment when the soldiers refuse to charge- the sense that they’re only pawns in his game is unmistakable.
Mireau is hardly the worst of the bunch, though. General Broulard masks his own inhumanity through genial mannerisms and politeness, but he’s a true manipulator, one who convinces the power-hungry Mireau to try to take the Ant Hill even as Mireau knows it is impossible. There’s a great symmetry to the film as Kubrick shows the inhumanity of all the order, particularly in a late scene between Dax and Broulard as the latter tries to manipulate Dax the way he did Mireau earlier. Dax isn’t having it. He’s not Broulard’s boy, and the audience’s righteous outrage comes through in Dax’s rebuke of the man: “…you’re a degenerate and sadistic old man, and I will go to HELL before I apologize to you again!”. It’s hardly subtle, but it’s supremely effective. Paths of Glory beats us down with all of this, making us, like the idealistic Dax, “ashamed to be part of the human race”.
That bitter sense of irony courses throughout the film’s veins- it’s an anti-war film called Paths of Glory, for god’s sake. Generals order soldiers to their deaths while wishing them good luck. They promise relief to men about to die. They remark on the cowardice of men as they sit behind desks. They try men who either didn’t have a chance to go over the trench or men who had been previously cited for bravery. Broulard claims the executions are good for troop morale, while Mireau remarks that the men die wonderfully after accusing them of cowardice. Officers are protected in spite of their evils, and even when Mireau is given his comeuppance, it comes out of what Broulard believes is a power grab by Dax rather than a move for justice. Broulard can’t even understand it- he believes the men inferior, subhuman, monstrous creatures.
And yet in the film’s final coup, Kubrick shows it isn’t the case. It’s been said that every film Kubrick made was a response to the previous one. Where The Killing showed how Killer’s Kiss could have been done better, Paths of Glory plays as an opposite of sorts to The Killing. Rather than a meticulous plan that fails, this is one that was doomed to fail. The violence, rather than exhilarating, is punishing. The motives of the major planners are completely cold and clinical rather than noble or neutral. And the ending affirms humanity rather than negating it- Broulard has dismissed the soldiers, and as they gather in a café with a captured German girl (Susanne Christian, Kubrick’s future wife), Dax sees that he may have been right. They jeer. They call at her and sexualize her. Kubrick uses a wide lens to show their inhumanity. And yet, as she tearfully sings a German folk song, the men quiet down. Kubrick’s closes in on their faces as they sadly hum her melancholy song, many of them moved to tears. It’s a cruel world, but man is not irredeemable.
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