Ryan and I would like to once again welcome you to another review for our Argumentative August Blogathon.
This next film, Paths of Glory (1957) is being reviewed by Niall of The Raging Fluff
Let’s see what Niall thought of this movie….
Summary: During the First World War, the French military orders a court-martial accusing soldiers of cowardice after an attack on an enemy position fails.
I originally reviewed Stanly Kubrick’s Paths of Glory last year for Movie Rob’s War Movies Month. But watching it again made me realise it is only tangentially a war film. Although it is set in France during the First World War, and there is a battle, as well as scenes in the trenches and on No Man’s Land, and an awful lot of killing and dying, I don’t think Kubrick was really interested in making a war movie, but was far more interested in examining the military mentality in all its forms.
The dark, rather stark, and occasionally funny script by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson (based on Humhrey Cobb’s novel) takes aim at the Army’s strict but questionable code of honour; the rigorous enforcement of the rules; the dismissal of the notion that a soldier could have shell-shock; and above all, the trial and execution of randomly picked men for the dubious purpose of morale. In many ways Paths of Glory comes across like an early rehearsal for Full Metal Jacket, and it contains some of the same dark humour in the face of Death that is evident in Dr. Strangelove.
It is a truism in the Army that shit rolls downhill, and Kubrick doesn’t argue with it; he just presents it for the nonsense it is and the sort of stupidity it can produce. One general tells another to attack and hold a strategic position. The general knows it’s a mistake but proceeds when a promotion is dangled in front of him; he orders a colonel to carry out the attack. The colonel knows it’s a mistake but proceeds when he’s threatened to be relieved of his command. The colonel orders a lieutenant to lead a reconnaissance. The lieutenant kills one of his own men by mistake and flees the scene; when a corporal threatens to bring charges, the lieutenant asks: “Have you ever tried to bring charges against an officer. It’s your word against mine. Whose word do you think they’ll believe? Let me put it another way: whose word do you think they’ll accept?”
Paths of Glory is a stunningly beautiful film, even when what it is photographing is rather ugly. It is shot in crisp black and white (by George Krause) and often in deep focus (perhaps to emphasise that each of the nameless soldiers in the background is a person, not a mere blurry figure to be ordered about). It has Kubrick’s trademark long tracking shots across No Man’s Land and winding along through trenches, and a clever, startling moment during the Night Patrol. We are looking across a muddy field at a crashed bi-plane when a flare lights up overhead, illuminating the foreground to reveal that the shadowy lumps aren’t rocks or muddy knolls but corpses. The flare dies out and the corpses are once again put in darkness.
There is a very realistic, dirty, brutal battle scene (which must have shocked audiences in 1957, who were more used to heroic war films where people get shot and die bloodlessly). The film is gritty about the brutality of war and the bloody-mindedness of the military mentality. A general refuses to believe that a solder is shell-shocked (as he refuses to believe there is such a thing). Another officer regards ordinary soldiers as “scum” acting as if they have a herd mentality. In some ways it is harrowing to watch because you know what’s going to happen and few seem interested in stopping it.
For a film generally remembered as a harsh examination of the pity of war, it has scenes that are highly stylised, with theatrical blocking and some of the dodgiest acting this side of an am-dram production. The actors aren’t really playing people, but stock-types: coward, brigand, rebel, tyrant, and so on, and many of the scenes (particularly in the first act) are simplistic moral or philosophical arguments disguised as drama. And right in the middle is Kirk Douglas jutting his jaw and sucking in his gut (I always imagined he insisted on a scene where he is bare-chested) and getting righteous and angry. It’s a very typical Douglas performance, which is not to say it’s bad, and he’s virtually the only human in the film, which is to say he’s the only character (or the only officer, anyway) who hasn’t been turned into a cog in the military machine.
Before the war Douglas was a lawyer, and so he asks if he can defend the men accused of cowardice. Once the court-martial begins, the absurdity of the situation and the way in which Douglas is prevented from presenting a proper defence will have you wondering if the military really can be this stupid. Three men are selected to be tried for cowardice. One (Ralph Meeker) is the corporal who threatened to expose his lieutenant’s cowardice; one has his name picked at random (Joseph Turkel); one is considered ‘socially undesirable’ (Timothy Carey): the film doesn’t expand on that, so you can imagine anything you want (it might simply be because he looks like a peace-loving beatnik).
Courts-martial haven’t really been explored that much in film (The Caine Mutiny; A Few Good Men), but they still allow for the sort of courtroom theatrics and hero lawyering that we’ve come to associate with legal thrillers, even though it appears the decision to execute the men is probably Douglas asks the presiding judge to read the indictment so that the prisoners can at least know the charges in full, he is told not to take up the court’s time with “technicalities”. The prosecutor phrases his questions so that the defendants cannot elaborate in their answers. (“The court has no concern with your visual experiences.”) Douglas does his best to prick at the Prosecution but to no avail.
As with much of Kubrick’s work, there is an awful lot of formal composition in the frame, and to further belittle his characters he places them in the cavernous rooms of a chateau. The court-martial takes place in an enormous ballroom; the same room, I think, where later officers in dress uniform and elegant ladies will waltz to Strauss (all of this, mind you, is mere miles from the Front). The film was shot in Bavaria.
This is a very loud picture: you can’t ignore the sound of footsteps on marble floors, nor can you ignore the obvious contrast between generals calmly discussing brutal acts while sitting on beautiful furniture surrounded by Renaissance art. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the execution of three soldiers is framed in a way that will make you think of Calvary. What redemptive power is there in this crucifixion?
A note about some of the performances. Although this is the French army, thankully there are no faux-French accents used by any of the cast: I`m guessing this is because Kubrick wants this film to be an indictment of all armies. Richard Anderson (who you might recognise from The Bionic Man of all things) is rather unctuous as the prosecutor. Wayne Morris is the bullying, drunken lieutenant. George Macready snarls, snorts and chews the scenery as the cruel, ambitious general who demands the court-martial, while Adolphe Menjou has a mischievious twinkle in his eye as his superior. Meeker, Turkel and Carey all do well with their parts. As for Douglas, as I said, he`s rather good as a decent man in an indecent situation surrounded by other who act less than human, especially in the climactic scene when he is offered a promotion.
“Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion … I apologise for not being entirely honest with you. I apologise for not revealing my true feelings. I apologise, sir, for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologise to you now or ever again!”
The film has a curious coda, which almost seems to belong to a different film. A group of drunken soldiers listen to a young German girl sing a song that reduces them to tears. It’s a moment of strange and sad beauty, a brief reprieve from the war, and a rebuke to the blind patriotism. The song is ‘Der treue Husar’ (The Faithful Hussar), which might make you think it’s a flag-waver, but it is in fact far more personal. It’s a folk song about a soldier who leaves the Front to be by his dying sweetheart. Incidentally, the pretty blond girl singing it is German actress and painter Susanne Christian, the future Mrs Kubrick.