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If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!


Paths of Glory


While they’re genres apart, Kubrick’s first classic shares with his previous film The Killing a sense of intractability and inevitability with regard to the system. There’s no escaping its grip, and all one can do is moderate how one responds to it. In the case of Sterling Hayden’s Johnny, he arguably brings fate down upon his own head, whereas the accused in Paths of Glory are the victims of arbitrary (or, in one case, malignant) “justice”. The film shares a bleak cynicism in common with much of Kubrick’s work, and the sliver of light/hope found in the final scene passes more as an attempt at practicality – avoiding a total and complete downer – than heartfelt sentiment.

It seems Kubrick, having been messed with on both his previous pictures, was pre-emptively prepared to give more ground this time. However, industrial rapist – and lead – Kirk Douglas was having none of it, preserving the initial unforgiving ending rather than one in which the condemned men receive a last-minute reprieve. Kubrick maintains a customary twisted sense of humour throughout, most commonly illustrated in the unconscionable attitudes and actions of the commanding tier.

Brigadier General Mireau (George Macready) takes the biscuit for loathsome behaviour, but his aloof detachment also produces such scenes as touring the trenches – lots of opportunities for Kubrick tracking shots there, naturally – and asking the men bafflingly oblivious standard pep-question “Ready to kill more Germans?”, announcing there’s no such thing as shell shock (and demanding the “baby” claiming it is transferred out of the regiment), blithely admitting more than half the regiment is likely to die in the ordered assault on the Ant Hill, and observing, post-executions, “The men died wonderfully. You couldn’t ask for better”.

His superior, Major General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), is only less invidious by degrees of congeniality and temperament, telling Douglas’ Colonel Dax the executions will be a tonic for the entire division (“There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die”). Dax is understandably disbelieving (“May I ask do you sincerely believe all the things you just said?”) The greatest absurdity is the execution of Private Arnaud (Kubrick semi-regular Joe Turkel), his skull busted in a tussle with fellow condemned man Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker). In a piece of queasy inspiration, “My advice is to tie him to a stretcher so he can’t slip when they tilt it vertically”, and pinch his cheek to bring him round.

The instigating event is Broulard approaching Mireau with the proposed Anthill assault. The latter initially claims it’s impossible to take the hill but reconsiders when his superior dangles the prospect of promotion under his nose (“What is my ambition against that?” Mireau asks when citing his responsibility for 8,000 men under his command; even as he says it, he is devising his method). 

The assault is, predictably, a disaster, albeit the part of Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) in that, earlier seen getting pished before going out on a nocturnal scouting machine and blowing up one of his subordinates, is thrown out there, since he refused even to try going over the top. Mireau initially responds by apoplectically ordering the bombing of his own men (the artillery commander wisely refuses without a signed order), a decision that comes back to haunt him, before demanding 100 men are court-martialled. Broulard brings the number down to a more symbolic trio.

The compare-and-contrast with Dax is essential to the drama and theme. He’s unimpressed by Menjou’s invocation of duty in reference to taking the Anthill, quoting Samuel Johnson (“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”). In which regard, some critics at the time and since have called out the picture’s American-ness and colloquialism, Johnson being one such reference. I rather see the approach as one of intentionally framing it accessibly and also universally. The choice makes it clear the army depicted is only nominally French, and only so because it’s easy to deliver the message if it isn’t aimed directly at brave Americans. Besides which, I’d argue that, once they decided to film English for French, any such considerations were on a slippery slope.

 Menjou’s response is to suggest Dax’s Indefinite furlough. Dax is thus presented a similar scenario to the general by way of command, but his decision to stay the course is depicted as loyalty rather than weak capitulation (one might argue the ins and outs of that choice) – or, as the case may be, ambition. When the hammer falls, Dax requests to defend the men, a process that inevitably turns out to be a farce (is he naïve to think it might be otherwise?) He labels the proceedings a disgrace and asserts that condemning the three men is “a crime to haunt each of you until you die”. Peter Biskind in Seeing is Believing observed “… the one good man is powerless, and… even worse, he becomes an accomplice in the charade of military justice by playing a role in the trial. The contradiction between the individual and the group is insoluble”. 

Thus, Kubrick offers no way out for the audience. Pauline Kael suggested “there’s an element of relentlessness in the way he sets out to demonstrate the hopeless cruelty of the ‘system’”. She felt Paths of Glory doesn’t leave the audience with anything, hence the cabaret scene with the future Mrs Kubrick becomes something of an empty sop (“It just makes you uncomfortable”). Of that coda, I don’t think it’s intended to be anything other than a meagre caveat. The initially bawdy rabble can recognise beauty, but its back to the front and more death and carnage tomorrow, or even in a few hours.

Dax: I apologise… for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize 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! 

Broulard: Colonel Dax, you’re a disappointment to me. You’ve spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau’s command. You are an idealist… and I pity you as I would the village idiot. We’re fighting a war, Dax, a war that we’ve got to win. Those men didn’t fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist that he answer them. Wherein have I done wrong? 

Dax: Because you don’t know the answer to that question. I pity you.

Dax is not an elite. He has a soul. He has no wish to go partying in the castle while the men die (he will help himself to their cognac, though). He has no interest in the dangled promotion. The scene quoted above unfurls the “attack on the military mind” masthead, allowing Douglas to flash his Hollywood liberal petticoat and Broulard his detached amusement at someone who doesn’t know any better.

Kael suggested “It is not so much an anti-war film as an attack on the military mind”, while Kubrick is said to have called Paths of Glory anti-war and Full Metal Jacket just war. I’d suggested Kael’s definition is nearer the mark; Paths of Glory doesn’t present enough conflict to be a fully-versed war (or anti-war) film (whereas Kubrick is correct in his assessment of his other film; you can’t be anti-war, really, if you intentionally make it exciting, as Full Metal Jacket does). Now you have Sam Mendes and his WWI-chic 1917 (every bit as superficial as heroin chic). His is the inversion of Kubrick, a white-knuckle, one-shot celebration of conflict. 

Douglas is very dependable here; it’s a very Kirk part and posture, but it suits the way Kubrick is telling the tale. So too the rest of his cast, top to bottom. Menjou and Macready are respectively superior and repulsive, while the condemned men are occasionally overwritten (Turkel) or overplayed (Timothy Carey). It seems Carey, previously in The Killing, caused all sorts of problems, much like his character – “Me, a social undesirable” – and eventually got himself sacked. He’s a fascinating presence, though, always doing something interesting and uninhibited; Kale called him “a precursor of the hipster druggies of the 60s” and fascinatingly jittery. It’s a Nic Cage kind of performance. The dynamic between Paris and Roget is palpable too, with his final “I’m sorry” when offering a rejected blindfold (Dax, wise to Roget, has put him in charge of the firing squad).

With Kubrick, there seems to be bags of implied history in there that you aren’t necessarily looking for, often because there’s other history (or future) calling attention to itself. The filming location for Paths of Glory’s HQ and court-martial scenes is the lustrous Schleissheim Palace; that’s New Palace, a testament to extraordinary opulent extravagance of an order almost inconceivable to the average man (cute joke: Broulard tells Mireau it is “Much the same as it was when I moved in”). This just happened – per official records – to have been built in 1701-04, so of a period with the 1700 event (was it built after? Before?) Notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey highlights a similar period in the bedroom sequence.

Paths of Glory garnered no Oscar recognition. There was a BAFTA nomination for Best Film, however. I’d put it in the very top tier of the director’s work, although it tends to be pushed into the pre-Lolita bracket (and thus relegated to one of those where he was still developing his approach as an auteur). It may lack his later opacity or visible layering of intent, but it’s a perma-potent and powerful tract.

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