There are war movies and there are movies about war. War movies have great battle scenes, tons of action, heroes (and anti-heroes), and perhaps not much for political or philosophical commentary. Hell, some war movies can even be funny. Right, 1941? Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) is a movie about war--about the dirt of it, the fatigue of it, and the inhumane philosophies and ideologies of which war is comprised.
Set in 1916 France, Paths of Glory first shows us how toxic ambition can be. As General Mireau (George Macready) is discussing a planned offensive with his superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), he indicates shortage of men and materiel as hindrances to mounting an attack on the German position called the "Ant Hill", but is soon swayed by his ambition. Once Broulard explains that there is the likelihood of promotion if the mission goes as planned, Mireau throws his previous concerns to the wind and thinks only of
The title of the film (and the book on which it's based) is a line taken from the Thomas Gray poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Just a bit on the haunting side, yeah?
After opening inside an opulent palace in which the Ant Hill offensive is discussed, we are transported to the mud and grime of the trenches. While Mireau is on his way to meet with Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), we hear and see the exploding artillery--it's far enough beyond the trenches that no one is getting hurt, but periodically close enough for even we as viewers to feel a little nervous.
While visiting the trenches, Mireau meets with various soldiers, leaves some pleasantries in his wake, and wants a "shell shocked" individual thrown out of his regiment. He then discusses the upcoming mission with Dax, and touts the Glory of France as the motivating factor. Dax responds with Samuel Johnson's, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", which obviously doesn't go over so well with the flag-waving general; that kind of anti-patriotic sentiment has no place in the French army, vrai? Dax realizes his error in judgment, proceeds to fall in line and declares that his troops will indeed take the Ant Hill, regardless of the prospect of losing over half of his men.
Back in the dugouts, there is more groundwork established for the inhumanity that we will see as the film progresses.
Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) is to lead a three-man patrol to the enemy lines and back on a reconnaissance mission in the dark. As the three men come to a protective crater from which they can observe the enemy position, they see a downed German airplane; earth tilled by shovels and shells; a possible enemy position drawing their eyes to the background...and an expanse of darkness directly in front of them.
We are in that trench with them. We are looking out into that blackness, frightened of what we can and can't see in front of us. As the flares...um, flare...we are exposed to what is hiding mere inches away.
Roget then breaks up the small group by having Pvt. Lejeune (Kem Dibbs) run farther ahead and report back. With no evidence of Lejeune after a period of time, Roget panics, throws a hand grenade, and hightails it back to the dugout, leaving Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker) to work his way back on his own.
Paris confronts Roget about his behavior, while Roget reminds his former schoolmate that bringing accusations against an officer will do nothing to advance his career in the military. Lejeune's death and Paris' knowledge of the event will become a key component in the inhumanity to come.
Elsewhere, the night before the advance on the Ant Hill bears witness to one of the more interesting debates on war and death that you will ever see. Which is more frightening, the prospect of dying on the battlefield, or the prospect of being maimed, and which implement of war worries you the most?
Do you agree?
On the day of the advance, half of the troops remain in the trenches due to the onslaught of artillery and machine gun fire coming their way. It is now that the film takes the turn that will turn your stomach.
In Roman times, the act of decimation meant that every tenth soldier was chosen by lot and then killed as a form of punishment for mass actions like desertion. Paths of Glory takes some inspiration from actual events within the French army during WWI, when around 30,000 troops mutinied, resulting in courts-martial and 49 executions. When Mireau sees that his regiment is not advancing, he orders one of his battery commanders to fire his 75mm guns on his troops' position. The battery commander refuses on the grounds that Mireau is not following protocol; the troops are still unable/unwilling to advance, and now Mireau wants blood.
On meeting with Col. Dax and General Broulard, Mireau asserts that he wants 100 men chosen and summarily shot for the cowardice of the entire regiment. Col. Dax offers himself up to be shot since he was in charge of the failed advance, but Mireau "settles" on three men (one from each company in the first wave). It is agreed that Dax, a lawyer in his civilian life, will then act as defense counsel for a court martial that will take place in a mere three hours.
And this brings us back to that fateful three-man mission that was led by Lt. Roget. As a company commander, it is on him to choose someone to face the firing squad. He just happens to choose Cpl. Paris, the one person who knows the truth about Roget's actions that killed Pvt. Lejeune. The other two soldiers picked for execution are Pvt. Arnaud (Joe Terkel), selected by lot, and due to his status as a "social undesirable" is Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey).
The court martial is obviously a complete farce. It matters not that Ferol was ordered back to his trench. Dax tries to show Arnaud's record of bravery, but he's stopped by the court's nameless chief judge (Peter Capell), who also prevents Dax from calling witnesses who can attest to Arnaud's character. Cpl. Paris then testifies that he didn't even get out of the trenches because a killed comrade fell on him, knocking him unconscious. The chief judge asks if there are any witnesses to that effect and points out that Paris' cut on his head can't be used as evidence because it is a wound that could have been self-inflicted later. Rrriiiggghhht.
Here is the closing argument that Dax puts forward...
Note the large hall in which the court is convened; it's a sort of symbol of the grandiosity and pomposity of the French army. Note, too, the echo whenever Dax speaks to the court; most of his closing argument is filmed from a distance. He's speaking in a large hollow room, the echo signifying that no one is truly hearing his words. They may bounce around from one wall to the next, but they never find their way to the ears of the court. Even Mireau's reaction has a hint of someone who faintly hears something, but disregards it as nothing more than a faint buzz.
It should be quite apparent that the three soldiers are not going to come out of this alive.
On the eve of the execution, we are treated to a couple quips by General Broulard that highlight the absurdity of everything we have seen to this point: "There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die" and "One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then." Well, I guess I just learned some important leadership lessons for when I return to work next week.
Paths of Glory then restores a little bit of humanity with the last scene. Perhaps music truly does have charms to soothe a savage breast...
Stanley Kubrick is second to none when it comes to showing how corrupt, idiotic, and/or archaic an entity can be; Adolphe Menjou's Broulard and Peter Capell's chief judge embody all of those qualities. Although George Macready was the pomposity of the film (wasn't he always?), Menjou and Capell were the cold calculation and criminal unyielding that put everyone in the positions they found themselves. In that regard, I would put the pair right up there with HAL-9000 as far as villainy goes.
Stunning scenes (that you really need to see for yourself) with Douglas, Macready, and Menjou amount to Paths of Glory easily being Kubrick's best anti-war film. See it. Love it. Never be the same.
This post is a part of the France on Film Blogathon hosted by Summer at Serendipitous Anachronisms. Click here to read all of the other entries. Enjoy!