Star: Kirk Douglas
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The preview audiences for Paths of Glory didn't cheer or boo when the end credits rolled, they simply remained silent, something that doesn't surprise me at all as I did exactly the same thing when I first saw it in 2004. I liked the film and admired it, I knew that right away, but I still sat there still and silent trying to assemble my thoughts about the film and what it meant, and while life went on, I was still thinking about it a few days later. Watching for a second time six years on I think I realise why it provoked that reaction: it simply isn't what I initially thought it was. It appeared to be a war film, or an anti-war film if you want to quibble, but it really isn't.
In its way, war is nothing but a MacGuffin here, the thing that is fundamentally important to everyone in the story and around which the story revolves but which ultimately has no importance whatsoever. It's the title of the film, initially appearing such a strange choice, that tells the real truth: it's about what glory means to different people and what they do to get it. War is merely a pretty good enabler to glory seeking but it's not the only one. As the full quote from Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard suggests, 'the paths of glory lead but to the grave.' I could see this story remade as an American gangster film or even a corporate struggle, with the thrust of the story preserved intact.
It can be dizzying on the first time through. Set during the First World War, it begins with generals talking about furnishings in a magnificent palace, apparently disassociated utterly with the actual fighting, only to quickly become what has been perhaps accurately described as the most realistic depiction of trench warfare ever filmed. Then, as soon as the action gets going it suddenly stops again and we find ourselves watching Kirk Douglas fighting for the common man in a kangaroo court. Once the inevitable arrives with nothing to slow it down, we're treated to a coda that seems utterly apart from everything we've seen, a musical number no less, and then the end credits roll. I'm not surprised those preview audiences chose silence as their immediate reaction. What could it all mean?
Well, that second viewing may be the key to working it all out, as the revelation of a couple of perspectives makes everything clear. First of all, there's very little background provided to the story, which is set on the western front during World War I but is almost entirely self contained, because it could be anywhere and anywhen. The accents, which range wildly between French, British and American, seem a little jarring at first, especially the broad New York accent of Emile Meyer who plays Fr Dupree, but the range fits with the concept that this really isn't about the French army, however much much of the material is sourced from real life incidents in French military history. There's an irony in the fact that the film was shot in Germany with German extras: most of the French soldiers in this film are played by off duty German cops.
To play along though, we're in France in 1916, where the German and French forces have been fighting a war of attrition for two years. It took the Germans a mere five weeks to get as close as eighteen miles from Paris but the French rallied at the Marne and kept the enemy away. Two years later, nothing much had changed except the death toll, five hundred miles of trenches pretty much stuck where they were to begin with. Needless to say the powers that be aren't particularly happy about this situation and are presumably more than a little pressured into doing something about it. So we're introduced to Gen George Broulard, the face of the French general staff in this story.
In the jovial form of an old Adolphe Menjou, close to the end of nearly a half century working in film and finishing up with a peach of a role, Broulard seems to think they're running the war pretty well even though he spends most of his time living the high life, hosting dances and indulging in the finer things. When we first meet him, he's complimenting Gen Paul Mireau, played to blistering high handed perfection by George Macready, on the furnishings at his HQ and we realise that this matters to him even though he's there to explain to Mireau, who commands 8,000 men, that those men will be taking the Anthill the very next day.
The Anthill is another MacGuffin, an important enemy stronghold, the key to the Germans' line, but taking it is as close to impossible as can be measured and Mireau, not a stupid man, fully knows that. In fact he tells Broulard as much from moment one, only changing his mind when his superior dangles a promotion in his face. He's a soldier, an experienced one too if the prominent scar on his cheek is anything to go by (though it really belonged to Macready rather than Mireau, the result of a car accident during his college days), but he puts his personal greed above the well being of his men. So Mireau strolls through the trenches asking a single unimaginative question of his men. 'Ready to kill more Germans?' he asks them, not caring what the reply is until someone doesn't provide one because he's suffering from shellshock. The general doesn't believe in such a thing so has him unceremoniously kicked out of the regiment on the spot.
We're already seeing the disconnect between Mireau and his men. He wishes them all luck because he's proud of them and honestly wants them to succeed, but his success is in emotionally distancing himself from the fact that he knows most will die the next day. Some of them are key players in the story to come, though he doesn't know it yet and wouldn't care if he did. We just watch him leave because we won't leave, having fully transitioned from the point of view of the chess player to the point of view of the pawn. There are no elegant furnishings here, the surroundings being mud, makeshift wood and explosions, lots of explosions. Over a ton of explosives were discharged in the first week of filming alone.
The man in charge on the ground is Col Dax, played by the film's star, Kirk Douglas, to whom Mireau passes on his impossible task. He tells Dax that his men will be taking the Anthill tomorrow, as if his decision is all that is needed to ensure success, even though he can't provide any real assistance: no helpful reports, no added support. Even the weather will be good, which is to say very bad. Talk about doomed to failure, but Mireau persists with statistics. He expects 35% to die on the way and another 25% taking the Anthill, but he's confident of success. Of course it's all nonsense and the men are cut to ribbons attempting the impossible, as we see in detail because while Kubrick's camera follows the push over the top into no man's land it doesn't look forward at the enemy, it looks sideways at Dax and his troops being massacred. Mireau's projected casualty numbers are proved to be wildly inaccurate and nobody even gets close to the German wire.
And while this is all suitably grim, the camera continually set up to focus on inevitability, it's about to get worse. Sure, the point of view shot of Dax moving through the trenches full of men huddling from the artillery barrage but waiting to go to their deaths is powerful stuff indeed, but we're about to see Mireau's reaction to failure and that's more powerful still. Instead of admitting that the push should never have been attempted and accepting responsibility, he accuses the men who survived of rank cowardice, the worst sin in his book, and he wants a hundred men shot for it. He stoops as low as to call them scum, 'a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs,' though Dax takes issue with that and the resultant haggling leaves the number at three, one from each company, to serve as an example to the survivors. 'There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die,' says Gen Broulard.
And so we see the human face of this story, entirely apart from the action, away from the theatre in which we expect men to fight and die, the place where we might expect and understand the concept of glory. We see three men court martialled and executed for cowardice, even though none of them had personally exhibited it, and it's impossible not to be torn apart by the scenes in what passes for a court. No less a military name than Winston Churchill described the film as 'the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind.' Kirk Douglas saw the importance of the script, telling Kubrick, 'Stanley, I don't think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.' It's Douglas who gets to fight for humanity, as Col Dax was a successful lawyer before the war and he puts the case for the defense.
Pvt Ferol retreated, but only after his company had been massacred to the point of two men remaining in the middle of no man's land. 'Why didn't you storm the Anthill alone?' asks Dax. 'You're kidding, sir,' Ferol replies, but Dax is the only there who is. Pvt Arnaud only got to the French wire, a mere few metres, but it was still further than anyone else in his company, most of whom were killed within a few steps. Like the rest of his company, Cpl Paris never even left the trenches, but he had better reason than anyone, having been knocked unconscious under the body of a major who had been shot dead on top of him. He was picked because he knows his lieutenant is a real coward, who had through his cowardice killed one of his own men only the night before on a reconnaissance mission. Arnaud was picked by lot and Ferol because his commanding officer sees him as a 'social undesirable'.
It's hard to breathe through some of these scenes, as Paths of Glory is nothing short of an epic film distilled down into a mere hour and a half and the tension is palpable throughout. There isn't either a wasted moment or a throwaway character. Everything that happens has a purpose and every one of the characters has his own depth, his own motivation and his own flaws. Nothing here is black and white. That goes for the officers and the men both, especially the three picked for death as an example. These three were brave in the face of the enemy, ready to give their lives for their country, even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them, but now that the outcome is certain they face inevitability in very different ways.
The depth is perhaps epitomised by Gen Mireau, who would appear the most guilty man in the story but who sees himself as as the only innocent man in the entire affair. We see him accept the attack on the Anthill only for personal gain, order his artillery to fire on their own troops because they're pinned down in their trenches and demand a hundred men shot for cowardice after the attack fails. Yet he sees his actions as those of a true soldier, someone who followed orders and expected his own to be followed in turn. He believes that if the attempt was truly impossible, 'the only proof of that would be their dead bodies lying in the trenches.' Given that war is by definition inhuman, perhaps Mireau is correct in seeing himself as the only true soldier involved because he is the only one who refuses to handle things in a human manner.
Mireau is perhaps also the reason why the story is framed within the French army on the western front in World War I, his character being based on a real French officer, Gen Géraud Réveilhac. Like Mireau, he ordered his own artillery to shell their own troops but was refused by the artillery commander who wouldn't obey without written authorisation from the general himself. Réveilhac also once ordered his troops to relaunch an attack because the percentage of acceptable casualties had not yet been reached, reminding of Mireau's use of statistics in this film. Réveilhac retired after the war, having been made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, but his acts were also included in a book whose title translates to The Wretched of the War: The Crimes of Military Justice (1914-1918). These two very different perspectives on a career epitomise the depth to be explored in this film.
Beyond Douglas, Menjou and Macready, let alone the many excellent actors providing able support, the most obvious character in this film doesn't appear until the very end, during the coda which seemed utterly out of place when I first saw Paths of Glory. She's the only woman in the entire film and the only German too. All the various plot strands have been tied up before we see her and we're thinking about all the moral ramifications of what we've just witnessed when she's thrown at us almost as a distraction. She's an unnamed young German woman, 'a little pearl washed ashore by the tide of war,' with a tear on her cheek, hauled onto a stage to sing in front of a rowdy crowd of enemy soldiers. She's Christiane Harlan, credited as Susanna Christian but soon to become Christiane Kubrick, marrying the director a year later and remaining with him until his death in 1999.
On first viewing it felt like this scene belonged to a different film entirely, but it's utter genius. The whole point is distraction because that's what the soldiers need and it's what we need. Her broken yet beautiful voice reminds everyone listening that life goes on. It's catharsis, a brief distraction from the horror that they've just witnessed, a better morale booster by far than the execution of some of their own men in the wake of the death of so many more. It's a restoration of humanity, a reminder of the beauty in life, of the world beyond no man's land, of their wives and daughters and whatever else they hold dear. No wonder this bunch of French soldiers quickly exchange their wolf whistles for stunned silence and then supporting voices. It really is an ending of genius for a film of genius. No wonder it's the second highest rated Kubrick in the Top 250. No wonder Kirk Douglas said that it was 'a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait fifty years to know that; I know it now.' No wonder we believe him.