Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 10, 2012

1957’s Paths of Glory is described as being one of the “early” Kubricks, and indeed it is, but in many more aspects than one the film ranks among one of the director’s simplest, starkest, and very best works. Right away it brings to mind the folly-filled outright satire of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb but slyly shapes it in an altogether disturbing way to make one of the most effective anti-war movies ever commited to celluloid. It’s easier, so to speak, to put crazy characters together in a crazy plot and make a side-splitting caricature on humanity in general, but here in Paths of Glory the absurdity abounding is expertly used to hard-hitting, sober, brutal, and not at all funny effect.

The intense WWI-set story is as such: In the muddy, bloody confines of endless trench warfare on the Western front, the 701st Regiment of French footsoldiers are ordered to take the “Anthill,” a heavily-defended German-held fortification. The tired, hopeless men are led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who fully realizes that the mission is a suicidal, utterly nonsensical one that will cost the lives of hundreds of his men but, without any other options, he follows the orders of the ambitious General Mireau (George MacReady), who, in turn, took them from the genial General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

The attack is carried out at dawn and predictably fails; it turns out that heavy enemy fire and massive casualties contributed to an entire platoon remaining in their trenches, disobeying orders to advance and surely die in the mud and wire. Citing “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” there is talk of putting a hundred men in front of a firing squad, but what is finally decided is that three soldiers will be picked by their officers – all for various and nonsensical reasons, ultimately – to serve as examples and to be executed the next morning. Also, as Broulard keeps saying with an cheery tone, it’s a big morale-booster for the other soldiers to see men getting killed. Because they don’t have enough death, and talk and thought of it, in their lives already.

Dax is a good obedient soldier, but he’s also compassionate (at least to a normal extent) and knows that this is all crazy. He tries to vouch for the three unlucky chosen (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel) at the court-martial, but finds disgusting results, as it seems that nothing will stop the execution and the complete nonsense that is running around uncurbed in front of his eyes. So what can he do? This is where Douglas – who, in some angles, resembles George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove – gives a massively underrated performance. You can positively feel the anger boiling under his calm, cool, and collected exterior and when it finally breaks, it’s a furious moment but one that is gone all too fast and forgotten even faster.

This is not a film with a happy ending, but as you might have heard already, in the very last famous scene Kubrick gives us one moment, one simple display of pure, breathtakingly simple human emotion that is humbling to witness. It’s one that gives us hope, after the startling onslaught of unexplained cruelty, and shows that Kubrick is not above being kind to his audience and, perhaps, forgiving to the human nature.

I love the black-and-white cinematography by Georg Krause. The steadicam might have been invented during the shooting of The Shining, but here a long and steady backtracking camera shot preceding a grim-faced Dax as he strides through the trenches, explosions heard and seen around him, then climbs up to start the attack is especially marvelous to watch. Kubrick and Krause used their wide-angle lenses, deep-focus shots, and tightly-composed framing to perfection in other scenes such as the horrid court-martial, making it effectively claustophobic. You just want to get out of that room.

On paper, Paths of Glory really shouldn’t work. If not played for endlessly entertaining laughs, the notion of seeing men, completely void of normal emotion, kindness, or justice, act wholly preposterously to convey an forceful anti-war message should grow tiring and rather obvious. But it isn’t so here, and while acknowlegement must be paid to Kubrick’s already obvious mastery of his craft, might the fundamental reason be that war itself is so absurd, it takes absurdity to truly unveil the horrors? Something to think about. [A]

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