06 June 2005

'Paths Of Glory'

Dir: Stanley Kubrick :: Script: Stanley Kubrick, Calder WIllingham & Jim Thompson
Photography: Georg Krause :: Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, George Macready, Adophe Menjou, Timothy Carey
US :: 1957

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"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,  
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,  
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.  
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
from Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'

Based on Humphrey Cobb's 1938 novel, this early Kubrick is a bleak essay on the futility of war, and isn't shy on the matter of class either. It's the First World War, and the French high command has decreed a pointless assault on a German position, The Anthill. The unit tasked with this folly, the 701st Regiment led by Colonel Dax (Douglas), is battle-weary, and come the hour the offensive fails. General Mireau (Macready) sees it as a personal slight, and demands blood sacrifice - and so three ordinary soldiers are arbitrarily picked out to be court martialled on the charge of cowardice.

Corporal Paris (Meeker) is picked because he was a witness to the drunken incompetence a true coward - his Lieutenant. Private Arnaud (Turkel), something of a dug-out philosophe, given to great meditations on the nature of fear, is picked by lot - a rational man given a rational fate. Private Ferol (Carey), an uncultured peasant, is chosen because he is "a social inadequate". Dax assures them he will do his best to defend them, but we the audience do not hold out much hope...


"It's not really 'Twelve Angry Men'," muttered JTG as our hapless trio were rushed through their trial, held in a splendid château far behind the frontline to contrast with the bloody, muddy slaughter we've just seen them immersed in. And this is no shiny courtroom drama, where the key witness bursts in at the last minute with the vital evidence to set our heroes free: no, the generals stitch the chaps up faster than it takes to boil an egg, and condemn them to die the next day. So determined are they to send a mesage to the lower orders that when Arnaud is knocked unconscious in his cell the night before, they decree he be tied to a stretcher to face the firing squad.

Officers don't come off very well here: Mireau is self-important, vainglorious, hubristic. We soon mark his card when early on we see him inspecting the troops, serving up the same old spiel: "Ready to kill more Germans?" The only man not to give him the expected answer ("Yes sir!") is shell-shocked... except our general doesn't believe in such a thing, instead preferring to see the battle-scarred man as a coward who should be transferred out of the regiment lest "his cowardice spreads". Mireau's own superior, General Broulard (Menjou) is manipulative and incapable of compassion or idealism. Another officer brands Ferol a "social inadequate"; and yet another lies about Arnaud to save his own skin. Only Dax and the artillery officers who refuse to fire on their own positions when ordered to by Mireau come out of it okay.

Throughout the film you can see a director becoming more confident, both with his technique and his material. There are beautiful slow tracking shots - along trenches full of scared, tired-looking men as Dax inspects his troops before they go over the top; across No Man's Land as they try to take The Anthill, the camera fixed on their faces as they crawl through crater and wire; around a dancefloor as the generals throw a party; and over a parade ground as our three sacrifices are taken to their fate. Kubrick also throws some interesting close-ups into the bag, so we get up close to the victims, we can't shy away from them and their soon-to-be-dead faces. It's like he wants us to feel ashamed for what's about to happen, to accept some of the blame. He certainly doesn't want us to forget them.

Anyway, it's interesting that it has such a downbeat ending. Apparently Douglas (the bigger player at the time) didn't like the happy ending originally tacked on - reprieve at the eleventh hour and all that - and persuaded Kubrick that it would drive home its message better if the three men died. Well, Kirk, you were right.

Further viewing:
'All Quiet On The Western Front'
'Cross Of Iron'


Blogger ch750536 said...

Grabbed this the other day, an absolute Kubrick classic. So many timeless shots.

5:07 PM  

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