Cine-East Film Club Presents #30: 1957, Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

by George_East on November 11, 2013

General Paul Mireau: ‘If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets they will face French ones’

As I finalise this post Remembrance Sunday has just become Armistice Day.  As Ray North wrote yesterday in his piece on Remembrance Sunday, it is a day which gives rise to mixed emotions.  On the one hand there is a the sadness and admiration for those who died in the armed services; on the other hand an anger and bewilderment that many have been sent to their death by the political leaders of this country for dubious (see Afghanistan) or outright dishonest (Iraq) reasons.

The War film is, of course, one of the staple genres of popular film.  Cinematic portrayal of war though is very much based on the nature of the war.  Second World War films are largely heroic, concentrating on the brave exploits of particular missions or incidents.  The cause is clear and the good guys are rarely in issue.  It is only with films like Sam Peckinpah’s extraordinary Cross Of Iron set as it is on the collapsing Eastern Front, as the Soviets advance, that the grim experience of many who fought in that war is shown at all.

Other wars though have been shown through generally less heroic prisms.   This has been particularly true of the Vietnam War and the small number of films about the First World War.   It would also appear to be largely true in the films now being made about Iraq, Afghanistan  and the so called War on Terror (see for example  Katherine Bigelow’s superb Zero Dark Thirty  of earlier this year).  In these wars the morality and purpose of the cause and the identity of the heroes are far less clear and the films are generally more morally ambiguous as a result.  The prism is much more one of tragedy rather than heroism.

Indeed it is the lack of an heroic cause combined with the generally static nature of trench warfare that, I think, explains why the First World War has only given rise to a fraction of the number of films as the Second World War.   Although the Cine-East Film Club has already featured one great First World War film, Jean Renoir’s prison camp masterpiece La Grande Illusion,  there really aren’t many great Hollywood First World War films  – there is, of course, Lewis Milestone’s iconic All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and John Ford’s flawed but, as ever, watchable, What Price Glory? (1952).    But most powerful of all amongst this small number, in my view,  is this week’s Cine-East Film Presentation, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory.

It is a film which lays bare the naked ambition and hypocrisy of much of the officer class, and the ordinary soldiers’ role as fodder for their games.   Set in the French trenches of 1916 and focusing on the aftermath of a suicidal and failed attack on a German position, the Anthill,  which in true Blackadder Goes Forth style is seen in the higher echelons of the French General Staff in their fancy chateaux a safe distance behind the front line, as being the big push which could turn the the tide of the war (or at least get carping journalists and politicians off their back).  It is an attack that when suggested even the General in charge of the relevant part of the front, Paul Mireau (George Macready – who played the night club owner Ballin in Gilda), will  initially describe as ‘impossible’, that is until his commanding officer, the Machiavellian General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) hints at a significant promotion if he is able to take the Anthill.

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, the commander of a regiment chosen to be part of the lead attack on the Anthill.   Dax was a criminal attorney in civilian life and he will also have to defend three of his own men on charges of cowardice after the attack fails.     Upon the attack failing and under the then prevailing French military code, Colonel Dax is required to choose three of his own men to face charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy, and therefore the death penalty if they are found guilty.  Dax orders that the three men should be chosen by their respective company commanders.  One is chosen randomly by lots, one because he is seen as a social undesirable and one by his drunken cowardly Lieutenant, because the soldier chosen was a witness to the officer’s cowardice and killing of another soldier on a night time patrol.

In one of the most effective court room scenes in cinema, the short kangaroo trial is shown for what it is.  No indictment is read, the prosecution calls no witnesses, the defence is prevented from presenting its case and there is no written record of the proceedings. General Mireau, though not a judge in the case, sits on a sofa in the court room throughout watching the proceedings and even intervenes at one point, to ensure that there really is no possibility of an outcome other than the predetermined one: a sentence of death by firing squad.

Kubrick contrasts the dirt, noise and claustrophobia of the trenches and the barracks where the prisoners are held and the grandeur of the surroundings of the general staff:  all high ceilings, old master artworks, ornate carvings and fancy furnishings.   There are two different worlds – the world of the generals who set themselves up as God and the lives of the ordinary soldiers who they judge.     The camerawork in the attack is dynamic, hand held and close up.  In the scenes in the chateau and the court room it is largely static using medium and long shots to emphasise the distance of this world from that of the men doing the fighting and dying.

In a tour de force sequence towards the end of Paths of Glory Kubrick cuts from a scene of Dax in his small and claustrophobic office in the trenches where he has appointed the coward Lieutenant Rogier (Wayne Morris) as the officer to command the firing squad and has been visited by the artillery captain from the day of the attack (John Stein) to a swirling grand ball with the officers in full dress uniforms and their wives in ball dresses dancing waltzes.   It is only a matter of hours before the three soldiers are about to be shot, but for the generals the pleasure and the partying goes on.

Dax now has some information, which he thinks may save his men and has come to there to see General Brolard. Dax thinks he can use the information that he has found out (that Mireau ordered the battery commander to open fire on his own troops) to save the men.  But he is an amateur in the political stakes compared to the general staff who spend their entire life playing such games.  Indeed General Brolard view the whole thing as a power play by Dax.  What other possible reason would Dax raise the issue – he can’t possibly really be about his men or justice.

The execution scene with the long walk through two columns of men to drums beating towards the place where they are to be shot takes almost as long as the trial.  The rituals of the execution are emphasised.  This is not about justice or even the appearance of justice but is designed instead to save the face of General Mireau and the rest of the general staff, and to instill fear in the men who look on.   The scene is incredibly powerful and utterly gut-wrenching.  ‘The men died wonderfully’ remarks General Mireau afterwards as if it was all just a piece of theatre.

The last scene has the soldiers of the regiment in a bar with a terrified German young girl being brought into entertain them as the soldiers bray at her like animals – she sings a song initially to silence and then all of the soldiers start humming along with her song.   Like La Grand Illusion and All Quiet On The Western Front the emphasis is at this moment on the common humanity between those on both sides.  This is about to be punctured though as Dax is informed by his sergeant major that the regiment has been ordered back to the front and no doubt for many of them to their death.

Paths of Glory is probably my favourite Kubrick film (who has become the first director to have had two films featured here at the Cine-East Film Club, after 2012’s Halloween special presentation The Shining).    It is one of the greatest of all war films.  It demonstrates just how disposable the life of the ordinary soldier is in wartime, and just how despicable those who send them into battle can be.

Lest we forget.

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