Directed Viewing: “Paths of Glory” and Visceral Response

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the series which takes a director’s filmography and looks at it chronologically week by week, with an eye for how each work builds upon the others and creates a full artistic career. Sure, directors aren’t everything that makes movies, but not only is it the easiest, most reliable way to break up film making, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

We’re four weeks into the Stanley Kubrick project, and it’s been kind of surprising so far. Last week was The Killing, which was good but incredibly pulpy; before that we suffered through Kubrick’s early works, which honestly just weren’t very good. But all in all it’s been pretty straightforward. For a director with a reputation for fairly difficult films, he certainly didn’t jump into that role with both feet. Instead we get to watch the gradual ascent (or descent, if you’re being contrary) into that role. A movement which begins in earnest today.

Paths of Glory (1957)

As a grim, no-nonsense narrator informs us, as the French settled in for a long war with Germany in World War I, both sides entrenched themselves into a veritable standstill. By 1916, neither side had budged for years, much to the embarrassment of the men tasked with making progress in the war. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders General Mireau (George Macready) to change this by capturing the German position referred to as the “anthill.” Mireau protests, saying that such an order is tantamount to a suicide mission. Broulard promises promotion, manipulates Mireau with ideas of duty and pride, and Mireau accepts despite his initial reservations.

Mireau heads to the trenches opposite the Anthill, inspecting and encouraging the men to get ready to kill some Germans. It’s there he meets Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a lawyer-turned-soldier who is ordered to send his men over the trench wall. Dax instantly knows the truth: this mission will kill half his men, and probably still fail. The more he objects, the more Mireau plants his feet, threatening to go so far as to replace Dax and lead the men over the wall himself. Dax relents, as he’d rather the men had a leader they know and trust than one who is nonplussed with consigning every other man to senseless death.

The mission carries on as planned, with Dax leading everyone in a charge into the trenches. It is, as expected, a complete disaster. The Germans lay down artillery fire that wipes out almost the entirety of the first wave over the wall, and the second wave doesn’t even have time to get out of the trenches before Dax is forced to retreat back, pinned down in no man’s land with machine gun fire. He returns beaten, only to find General Mireau livid that his orders were seemingly ignored–and his glory dashed–by a bunch of cowards.

Colonel Dax pinned down on the trench wall during the doomed battle, about to make a lengthy, hopeless march.

Mireau, trying to save face, decides to court martial a whole swath of the soldiers, as many as one-in-ten, to be tried for cowardice and probably put to death. Broulard, seemingly unaffected by the idea of mass murder of French soldiers, calmly talks Mireau into settling for just three, one from each of the companies who took part in the doomed mission. One, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), is chosen by his commanding officer because Paris witnessed him actually commit an act of treason that resulted in the friendly-fire death of a French soldier. One of the other men, chosen by random draw, has already been commended for bravery in the past.

Dax, who was a fairly well known lawyer before joining the army, defends the men at their court-martial. The proceedings, though, are little more than a runaround meant to offer a scapegoat for the fiasco that was the whole attempt to take the Anthill. The proceedings are wildly unfair, with the judges refusing to even read the charges, no record kept by a stenographer, and no character witnesses allowed to be called. In the end, Dax can only hopelessly try to appeal to the better natures of the men who got them into this mess, practically begging in his closing remarks, ending with the chilling threat:

Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime to haunt each of you till the day you die.

The kangaroo court is held in what looks to be a palace, juxtaposing the men fresh from the horrors of the front against the indulgent comfort of leadership.

It doesn’t matter, though, as all three men are sentenced to execution. The remainder of the movie deals with the reactions of the condemned, as they slowly realize that what seemed a mistake of bureaucracy is going to result in their deaths. Dax continues to fight for them, discovering that Mireau had tried to give an order to have French artillery fire upon the soldiers to get them out of the trench, which he then proceeded to cover up as best he could in the chaos of the defeat.

Dax presents all of this to Broulard, who ignores it just long enough to parade the condemned men in front of the media before they’re shot, and then turns around and throws Mireau to the investigative board for similar charges of cowardice and insubordination. Broulard then offers Dax Mireau’s position, implying that he had been angling all along for the promotion that caused Mireau to kill countless men. Dax, understandably indignant, lashes out at Broulard and then storms out, unable to do anything but quietly and grimly return to the front.

Now, let’s be very clear about something: Paths of Glory is a great movie. But I hated it, at the same time I think it’s amazing. I hated what it presented, I hated this hellish scheming that led men to their doom to save face for a bunch of officious middle-men generals. I hated that good men were made to suffer and die, not just in battle but in shameful displays of the power of the state, in order to appease some need to lay blame. Watching the movie, I found myself in a state that is actually rather rare for me: genuinely upset, genuinely angry.

Colonel Dax, unable to protest too loudly, gets only one moment of lashing out, the emotional release of a movie defined by restrained outrage.

Paths of Glory manages the rare trick of being a great film that inspires horror and disgust with humanity, that does it in a way that isn’t excessively manipulative (more on the manipulation later), and that allows you to feel the full injustice of what’s happening, built up layer by layer until it made me genuinely sick with fury, indignant that I had to watch these awful things happen, knowing full well that nobody decent had any power to stop it, the slow inexorable march of the system destroying lives, people so removed from the reality of it that they take it as just business as usual, a PR opportunity.

I watch a lot of ‘art’ movies, and sometimes that is a difficult process, more intellectually rewarding than emotionally fulfilling. Not everyone is into that experience, I understand, but every once in a while it presents gems like this, which hit every button and inspire such overwhelming furor of feeling that it makes every difficult movie worth the trouble. Paths of Glory isn’t complex in its messaging, but it’s frank appeal to compassion and decency is compelling from a director so regularly charged with pessimism (or outright nihilism) as Kubrick. The movie isn’t fun, sure, and it will probably make any reasonable person angrier than hell, but it’s done in service to a message that’s ultimately about putting lives above obligation and status, and that’s the kind of message that is worth investing emotionally in, even if it pans out to something ultimately devistating in the example the film presents.

Put that transition firmly on the incredible work Kirk Douglas does in the movie. He’s a decent man in an impossible position, incapable of disobeying orders and concerned first and foremost with the fate of the men under his command. He’s a man of great passion carefully bottled, trying again and again to reasonably fix the mess he finds himself thrust into, finally descending into frank appeals that bare how tortured the whole proceeding has made him. Most telling is how his role is bookended in the film: we meet him for the first time in his tent, shirtless and washing up, seemingly hearty and in fairly decent spirits. By the end of the film he’s stoic, looking 10 years older, bundled in a thick coat as he marches off the screen in the final shot with no more than a stiff salute from a nearby guard.

The reactions of the condemned men (most notably Ralph Meeker, center) take up much of the second half of the film.

Of the four Kubrick films we’ve seen thus far, this is the one that begins to fit the profile of the director he eventually became. It’s certainly not as oppressively dark as his later films, and it’s certainly not as hard to approach as something as 2001, but it holds within it another, more instinctive kind of power that is deeply tied into the sense of justice that most people carry within them to some degree or another. So let’s talk about what makes this really amazing:

It’s all true.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely accurate. While the story told in Paths of Glory is fictional, it is the adaptation of the novel by Humphrey Cobb, which was based on the true story of four French soldiers who were executed for mutiny in order to fortify the morale of the other soldiers in World War I. And indeed all of the armies that took part in that war carried out similar executions for cowardice. Which, I think no matter how you slice it, is a horrible thing to consider, even if it wasn’t tangled in the awful, nigh-incompetent politics of the commanders as shown in the film.

Because, let’s face it, extenuating circumstances or not, who isn’t against the idea of dying, especially for something utterly senseless, the whims of people who sit behind desks dictating the very real fate of men they will never know. Sure, maybe Paths of Gloryis anti-war, and maybe I follow right along with that, but given the situation it is the obvious response, the compassionate one, the just one. And that is what the movie pleas for, above all else: compassion, justice.

The inevitable execution is presented as a media event, with full company of soldiers at attention and press in tow.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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