Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
At 84 minutes, Paths Of Glory (1957) is Stanley Kubrick’s most taut, focused and economic narrative. Yet it says more about the pity and cruel absurdity of war than a dozen dusty academic tomes on WWI could ever achieve. But it is no sledgehammer diatribe – “For all its horror, war is pure drama,” Kubrick believed. Together with magnetic and stubborn star Kirk Douglas, the young director delivered drama, barbed wit and horror with this, his first masterpiece.
Fresh from his success with crime story The killing, Kubrick optioned the 1935 novel Paths Of Glory by Humphrey Cobb (based on true events), hoping to continue his relationship with studio MGM. It tells the tale of a French regiment’s failed attack in 1916 on the “Anthill”, a heavily defended German position in their sector on the Western Front. With half the regiment failing to leave the trenches under the relentless German barrage, their own Generals, in the cruellest of lotteries, select three men to be tried as an example to thier comrades for cowardice, and executed. General Mireau’s (George Macready) rational: “They will either face German bullets or French ones,” he says of his pawns. The men’s own humanitarian officer, Colonel Dax, a lawyer before the war, defends them against an impossibly stacked outcome.
MGM turned Kubrick down, so he and production partner James B Harris simply went ahead with developing a script by pulp novelist Jim Thompson (who scripted The Killing) and novelist Calder Willingham. Shopping around other studios, they provoked MGM’s ire, and were fired.
Up stepped Kirk Douglas, already a powerful star with his own production company, Bryna Productions. He wanted the role of Dax, seeing it as a powerful showcase for him, in a script with a muscular anti-war stance. He secured the backing of United Artists, and filming commenced in Germany, budgeted at $1 million. Savvily, Douglas trousered a third of the budget (Kubrick and Harris agreed to a percentage of the profits), while telling his director, “I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel. But we have to make it.”
The film is unusual for Kubrick in that it features a relatively straightforward protagonist in Dax, although Douglas’ portrayal differs from the book – there he does not lead the charge across no-man’s land, nor does he act as defence counsel. Douglas (and presumably Kubrick) felt that he must straddle the two worlds convincingly; the stark, splendid chateau, an arena of words in the General’s club and court martial; and the mud and blood of the enlisted mens trenches. His Dax is a loyal servant to a corrupt, crumbling old order, an idealist shackled by duty. He feels as he is the most able, he must eloquently defend the men, using every trick in his book against this monstrous injustice.
“They’ve skimmed milk in their veins,” General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) scoffs. “Well it’s the reddest milk I’ve ever seen. My trenches are soaked in their red skimmed milk,” Dax retorts.
His superiors talk about their men as if they are malleable children or bovine. Again, Broulard: “These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division…One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”
Kubrick’s style really began to develop here, the long, measured tracking shots, long takes and wide angles, opening up vistas yet drawing the viewer in to this world: the defendants marched in to the huge ceilinged ballroom are dwarfed in a Kafka-esque display of helplessness before an implacable military machine. The use of deep focus, echoing boots and voices, and natural light are very effective at suggesting the unsettling contest for their lives and honour.
The notional enemy is barely glimpsed through the smoke and fusillade of bombs and bullets on the battlefield. Kubrick’s mastery of composition and camera is best revealed in the two minute sequence following Dax through the trench just before the attack, weary men flanking on either side. He pushes on grimly as artillery shells burst overhead, the camera finally adopting his POV, emerging through smoke as if he is in Wilfred Owen’s underworld. Martin Scorsese said of this tracking shot:
“There’s something about an objective vision that’s happening, they’re just showing him, here’s this man, you make up your own mind. I’m telling you right now, this is what went down, and it’s bad. It’s a lie, and it’s hypocrisy.”
Kubrick’s long, hand held tracking shot of the actual attack was hugely influential and radical at the time. During his early career at the BBC, Ridley Scott faithfully recreated it as an exercise. He designed the sets, sourced props and costumes, wrote the script and blocked all the camera moves, shooting on a 35 mm camera. Instructors on the BBC Director Programme deemed it “exceptionally praiseworthy.” Terry Gilliam said of Paths of Glory, “I learnt that the camera can do things rather than just record: it can effectively become a character in the piece.”
David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire, said:
“I first saw Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. The last scene — an affirmation of the dignity inherent in even the most common man — shattered me. I got that much out of it, at least, though I was still quite young and somewhat literal. I think I mistook the film for a war story, or a courtroom tale. I know I didn’t see it as indicative of anything other than what I then regarded naively as a unique period of human history — the charnel house of World War One. I think I now understand the film, one of Kubrick’s finest, better. It is, I believe, the most important political film of the last century, a stark testament to the power that modern institutions wield and the ultimate vulnerability of individuals who are served or are supposed to be served by such institutions. Humphrey Cobb wrote the novel before the nuclear age, and Kubrick put it to film well before the information age and the cult of political terrorism rendered our planet small and lethal. But all the elements by which human beings are devalued and destroyed for the sake of someone else’s greater purpose are there, latent, on display. They actually banned Paths of Glory in France, thinking — too literally again — that it was about France. No. God, no. It’s all of us, lost in a rigged game.”
The three defendants (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel and Timothy Carey) are defiant yet resigned, never sentimentalised. The execution itself is a pitiless display before ranked witnesses in the indifferent grounds of the Chateau. Afterwards, a disgusted Dax spits out to his cruel superior, “You’re a degenerate and sadistic old man, and you can go to hell before I ever apologise to you again!”
Famously, Kubrick met his wife making this film , Susanne Christian. She is a terrified German girl forced to sing for the jeering men, due to go up the line. Soon however, her tearful singing of The Faithful Hussar reduces them to poignant silence, and they begin to join in. Dax tells his sergeant, “Give them a few minutes more,” seeing the need for this human connection in the midst of madness.
In 1969, Douglas said of Paths Of Glory to Roger Ebert, ” There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait fifty years to know that; I know it now.”
Originally posted 2013-07-25 06:27:43. Republished by Blog Post Promoter