Paths of Glory: the timeless message of an anti-war masterpiece
Director Stanley Kubrick's early film of WW1 injustice and corruption is now regarded as one of his best, possibly the best, film he made in a career of classics.
When Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" opened in American theaters in late December 1957, more than four years had passed since US troops had fought on the Korean peninsula. And it would be several more years before the conflict in Vietnam escalated into a real war for this country. So perhaps it was bad timing that initially kept audiences from flocking to see one of the greatest war films ever made.
Since then, popular feeling has caught up with critical regard, and Mr. Kubrick's picture—based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb—has attained a status commensurate with its meticulous craftsmanship and sadly timeless message. Though book and movie vary considerably, both were inspired by a real-life miscarriage of justice in the French army during World War I. In Mr. Cobb's fictionalized version, which Mr. Kubrick necessarily streamlined for the film, three enlisted men are executed by firing squad on trumped-up charges of cowardice in order to cover up their superiors' misguided attempt to take an impregnable fortress.
The film's title, like the novel's, comes from a well-known line by the English poet Thomas Gray: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." And partly because of that, an antiwar label more suited to the book has attached itself to the movie. The film is indeed pointed, but its contempt is directed not at war per se—as was the case in Lewis Milestone's still-magnificent "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930)—but rather at the manner in which war is conducted. For the movie is fundamentally an attack on bureaucracy and its attendant rigidity, hypocrisy and cumulative ineffectiveness.
If that sounds dull or, worse, didactic, rest assured that in the hands of Mr. Kubrick and company it is no such thing. The picture is visually alluring from the start. Much of the early action takes place in the trenches, evoked with unsettling accuracy by the film's art director, Ludwig Reiber, and fully revealed in two audacious tracking shots by its cinematographer, George Krause. And not enough can be said about the lucidity and taut excitement of the movie's one battle scene, the failed attack that initiates the disgraceful acts from which this picture draws its dark power.
But the film's most unnerving moments play out in the sumptuous chateau that serves as headquarters for Gen. Paul Mireau, the movie's principal villain, modeled on a similar character named Assolant in the book. Here, far from the muck of the trenches, the film's most disturbing images unfold, as high-ranking officers calmly plot the basest turpitude.
Realizing that any film treatment of Mr. Cobb's book needed a moral center, the film's co-writers—Mr. Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham—chose Col. Dax, who is both less noble and less central in the novel. Mr. Kubrick wanted Kirk Douglas for the part, and the actor, then in his heroic prime, brought with him not just his trademark indignation, but also the star status necessary for the project's financing.
Mr. Douglas, to be sure, has some excellent moments defending the doomed soldiers against an indifferent panel of military judges, even as there is never any hope they will be spared. And those playing the condemned men—Ralph Meeker is the most famous—also do fine work, as do several others playing various low-level officers and enlisted men. But the script's best and, paradoxically, funniest lines go to the two men who symbolize the hierarchy's decrepitude: Gens. Mireau and Broulard, portrayed with chilling effectiveness by the screen veterans George Macready and Adolphe Menjou.
Mr. Macready, a noted Shakespearean with a fearsome scar across his right cheek, had been in pictures since World War II; Mr. Menjou, one of Hollywood's most durable supporting players, since the silents. Together they make a singular Mutt-and-Jeff act, with Mr. Menjou's avuncular and cool Broulard outranking—and ultimately outflanking—Mr. Macready's Mireau, an amoral martinet who cares for nothing but his own advancement. More than anything else in this film, their verbal jousts, at once entertaining and repugnant, reveal the indifference of those in charge toward those they command.
Much has been made of the film's last scene, in which a young German girl (Susanne Christian, later the director's wife) is thrust before a tavern full of rowdy French soldiers and forced to sing. The episode does not appear in Mr. Cobb's novel. But Mr. Kubrick makes the coda work—with Mr. Krause's camera locking onto a host of careworn faces as beasts transform into men while listening to the girl's halting version of a sentimental ballad. The message is unmistakable: Gens. Mireau and Broulard may be unredeemable, but ordinary soldiers, even after the brutality of the trenches, can be human again.
An ability to pivot drastically without strain—to go from black comedy to heart-rending affirmation—was one of Mr. Kubrick's great gifts as a filmmaker. "Paths of Glory" finds him having just refined this skill, along with other emblems of his signature style. And for that alone the movie remains important. But the picture's enduring appeal comes from its unflinching application of Lord Acton's famous warning that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Here—in the midst of war, when the stakes are at their highest—Mr. Kubrick illustrates the consequences of unchecked ambition and mass complacency.
That Mr. Kubrick chose to depict the French army—rather than, say, the German or the American—is immaterial. So is the war; the lessons apply to all conflicts. Many expected an end to mass slaughter after World War I. Yet more than 20 years after Mr. Cobb's novel was first published, Mr. Kubrick reminded us that human folly is rarely checked for long. A half-century on, he is still right.
Source: Wall Street Journal