#3 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
Okay,…This kid from New York has real talent.
This is Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, and it has the kind of emotional punch that many find sorely missing from his overall oeuvre. Dealing with themes that Kubrick would explore for the rest of his career, Paths of Glory is one of the great anti-war movies.
It seems like there’s an unwritten rule that if you want to make a movie about war as a necessary and even noble thing you make it about World War II, and if you want to make a movie about how war is a waste of life without any redeeming value you make a movie about World War I. Hell, even The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles had an episode about the awfulness of war set in the trenches. And the setting is a perfect place for a testament to war’s complete wastefulness. It was a conflict marked by trench warfare, exchanging thousands of lives in pitched but completely meaningless battles that decided nothing while completely destroying the verdant countryside of France and Germany.
In an undefined sector of the front, General Broulard visits his subordinate General Mireau and tells him that Mireau must attack the fortified German position the Anthill in two days. Mireau scoffs at the idea, noting the recent action his sector had just been involved in and the strength of the German position. Broulard, though, dangles a promotion out in front of him and Mireau immediately changes tune. Yes, attacking and holding the Anthill is not only possible, it’s obviously something that his 7,000 men can accomplish.
The attack goes out under the direct command of Colonel Dax who does his best to make the insane orders he’s received work. In the middle of the attack, he even retreats to the trenches to try and coax the right flank to emerge from the trenches, which they have failed to do up to that point, right as the attack falls apart completely. At the height of his frustration Mireau even orders his artillery commander to attack the French right flank but the artillery commander won’t do it without a written order from Mireau, which he never receives.
In the face of such a complete farce of a defeat, Mireau wants blood from his own men. Broulard, understanding and conciliatory, talks Mireau down from 100 men to face the firing squad to three. Dax is horrified at the news and becomes the three men’s counsel at their court martial. He gives a vigorous defense, but it’s obvious that the fix is in and there’s nothing he can do to prevent the executions. In a last gasp effort, Dax learns of Mireau’s order to attack the French troops hiding in the trenches and tries to use that knowledge to convince Broulard to drop the whole matter. It doesn’t work, the executions go forward, but Mireau is put up at a board of inquiry and Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s command. Dax is horrified at the prospect and tells Broulard off. He wasn’t trying to defend the men and undermine Mireau for his career. He was trying to save three men he considered innocent victims of a military bureaucracy that had become blind to his mission and responsibility to the men it served.
This move is just fantastic. Dax is a great protagonist, played commandingly by Kirk Douglas. He’s smart, understanding, and willing to stick a knife in when he needs to. Mireau is the perfect kind of antagonist with a purely bureaucratic mindset looking no further than the advancement of his own career. The three men are strong, and Lieutenant Roget, who volunteered one of the three and whom Dax orders to carry out the executions, is a marvelously realized weasel of a man.
The movie looks amazing as well. Filmed in black and white, the trenches feel wonderfully grungy and filthy which contrast beautifully with the gorgeous German mansion that operates at the French military command’s headquarters. The juxtaposition between the men at the front and their commanders is so stark that it cannot be missed. The failed attack on the Anthill (a name I love as it implies the target’s immense unimportance in the grand scheme of life and the war) is gorgeously filmed. Largely made of steady tracking shots that follow the advance along with the troops, no man’s land is all filth, mud, craters, and barbed wire. It feels like we’re in the advance with them and only breaks when Dax himself stops advancing.
The film is so rich and yet only 88-minutes long. The final scene where the young German girl sings to the French soldiers, quieting their rowdiness with her tearful old song, shows the friends and fellow soldiers to the three sacrificed men in their most disarmed and innocent states. It’s a temporary reprieve for them before they are sent back to the meat grinder where they will once again become subject to the whims of the French military command. It’s perhaps their final moment of humanity.
One final note: I love how no one speaks with an affected French accent in this film. Everyone speaks plainly with their American (or, in one case, British) accents. I’m not one to nitpick about bad accents, but I think this approach is the most correct to take. If we’re going to follow French soldiers speaking English, then they should sound like English speakers not French speakers speaking English. I’ve imagined a movie where the main characters are French played by Americans who then encounter American characters who speak French. I’ve found the idea amusing, at least.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
Originally published here.