The title of this article isn’t meant to be a command. It’s not “you” the reader so much as it is a proverbial “you.” Movies a movie fan is meant to watch. I’ll tell you a secret: I hate talking about those kinds of movies. If everyone already knows they’re great, classic, significant movies, what the hell can I add to the conversation? Other than to stammer and say yeah that was good. “Classic for a reason.” Hate it. Bothers me to no end. So like a good little self-aware artist monkey I decided to tackle my weakness head on. That tends to be a good approach, at least for me. Fosters growth and increased skill and all that nonsense. So I’ve decided to really tackle it. I’m always trying to watch these sorts of movies, because I’m a movie fan and it seems necessary, but I figured I’d embrace the challenge and make it one of my ongoing dinky little series.
What better film to start with than Paths of Glory, a much loved early release from my absolute favourite director. Stanley motherfucking Kubrick. One of the greatest geniuses to ever make movies, in my extremely humble opinion. So good starting place. I’m trying to cross the remainder of the master’s filmography off my list real soon, so this was a while coming.
Kubrick only managed to finance the film based on Kirk Douglas’ interest in playing the lead. Douglas’ production company even got a production credit, despite not being involved in the making or financing of the film. The film starred Kirk Douglas, George Macready, and Adolphe Menjou. Menjou was initially disinterested in playing his role, a soft-spoken and morally unpleasant general, because of his personal patriotism and past military service. Kubrick cajoled him by sugarcoating the general’s traits in conversation and only allowing Menjou access to a very limited number of the script’s pages. Menjou later butted heads with Kubrick over the number of takes they were doing, as happens on Kubrick sets. “It isn’t right, and we are going to keep doing it until it is right; and we will get it right, because you guys are good!” After completing the film Menjou softened his take on the incident, remarking that Kubrick’s style reminded him of Charles Chaplin, who he’d worked with in the past.
The film’s brilliant cinematography is oft remarked upon – it’s brilliant tracking scenes getting most of the attention. However Kubrick’s depiction of the soldiers’ charge through no-man’s land is equally stunning. Days were spent exploding chunks of the landscape and placing barbed wire. The day of the actual charge, Kubrick positioned six different cameras and followed Kirk Douglas through the landscape with a handheld camera. It’s a stunning scene, a reminder that Kubrick’s grasp of action is incredibly strong for a director perhaps best known for distancing the audience.
Indeed this lesser distancing was perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie, at least for me. It’s hardly meant to be the most involving film, but compared to Kubrick’s later work it’s incredibly direct. It wears its major themes on its sleeve (although always there are less obvious undercurrents as well) and is generally interested in keeping the tone of the film fairly tense. In fact the movie is so direct it was actually banned by the French government, who found it to be overly critical of their country. Kubrick had to edit out the use of the French national anthem at the beginning of the film for its release in a few countries.
This was one of Kubrick’s first ever commercial successes. He was also far happier with it than his past films (he pretty much discounts Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss altogether). Ever the auteur (“writer, director, editor: you should try to be one solid entity just like the art you are creating is an individual entity.”) It’s wonderful Kubrick had such success with his biggest film to date (still a relatively small budget though, just under a million dollars). Though perhaps the success was the very reason his next film, Spartacus, was such a rough production.
Paths of Glory is set during World War One and follows a group of French soldiers and their generals. The generals, abiding in palatial residences just a walk from the trenches, decide that ground has to be taken, and taken fast. The opening narration of the film explains the effects of this war of attrition: the time spent and the men lost for little change. The generals (one manipulating the other in one of the movie’s few comic moments) decide that a borderline suicidal attempt should be made on a nearby German stronghold, The Anthill. Ever interested in the danger of hierarchal class structure, Kubrick almost immediately contrasts the sumptuous and easy life of the general with the miserable and expendable lives of the soldiers in the trench. In a wonderful tracking shot the general strides through the filthy trenches in his kingly uniform, stopping the occasional soldier to ask the same rote questions.
There’s a fairly bitter irony to the first portion of Paths of Glory. It’s pretty much exemplified by the character of General Mireau. When we first meet him he’s being plainly manipulated into committing to an assault that’s clearly against his better judgment. The scene of him leaving his ornate mansion (where he was previously casually deciding the fates of his underlings, amidst content chit-chat about the interior decor) and entering the miserable trenches couldn’t be clearer.
Gen. Paul Mireau makes it all the way to Kirk Douglas’ character, Col. Dax. Dax is obviously the film’s good guy. Kirk Douglas’ chin and interest in playing the role make that pretty obvious. He’s an idealist who truly looks out for his men. Consequently he’s immediately suspicious of the plan to attack The Anthill, and then disturbed by the predicted casualties. He toes the line of subordination a few times in the conversation, but eventually agrees to the plan. Three soldiers are sent out at night to scout the region. It’s Kubrick’s first grim combat scene in the film, and we never see an enemy soldier. One of the three soldiers is drunk and paranoid, he panics and splits up the party. Then he cracks and hurls a grenade into the night, killing one of his own party. It’s a bleak scene, set in no-man’s-land at night. The grim landscape is occasionally punctuated by flares.
The explosive centrepiece, the assault on The Anthill, is the aforementioned phenomenal action scene. A mix of sweeping long distance shots of the swarms of French soldiers crawling over the potholed dirt and mid-range shots of Dax crawling and tripping through the mud whistling his troops forward. It’s intense and grimly beautiful. The assault is as futile as Dax feared. Most of the men die, some never leave the trenches. Watching the assault from afar causes Mireau to snap. He calls the artillery and orders them to fire on the soldiers still in the trenches. The artillery refuses without a written order.
After the ill-fated assault, Mireau confronts Dax with his plan to court martial a hundred men for the crime of cowardice. A crime punishable by death. The rest of the movie focuses on the farcical trial. Dax’s background is legal, so he serves as counsel to the defence. However the military officials sitting in judgement have clearly made up their minds already. This is the better-known chunk of the movie.
The attack yesterday morning was no stain on the honour of France, and certainly no disgrace to the fighting men of this nation. But this Court Martial is such a stain, and such a disgrace. The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice. Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime, to haunt each of you till the day you die. I can’t believe that the noblest impulse for man – his compassion for another – can be completely dead here. Therefore, I humbly beg you… show mercy to these men.
That and the ending. The ending sees Dax walking past a bar filled with French soldiers. There’s a captive German girl onstage (played by Kubrick’s future wife), and she’s made to sing. In that brief moment the men watching her sing start to hum along, and eventually cry. In at least one interview Kubrick is very outspoken about the inaccuracy of the idea that this scene somehow cleans the slate. It’s a moment of weakness on the part of the soldiers, a brief memory of home, but that is not to imply that these are good guys. In fact, in the same description Kubrick points out how awfully they act towards the girl in the moments before she sings.
It’s a quiet ending to the movie. A brief moment of catharsis and hope at the end of a pretty bleak movie.