Monday, December 10, 2012
Paths of Glory
Widely regarded as director Stanley Kubrick's first masterwork, Paths of Glory is a scathing indictment against the corrupt, cynical officer establishment of the military, in which the privileged elite live in luxury and mistreat the common soldier as merely a pawn in the never-ending pursuit of advancement and prestige. From the harrowing hell fire of the battlefield to the twisted, self-serving cover-up of a kangaroo military court, we witness the absolute lowest humanity has to offer.
World War I. The Western Front is locked in a stalemate. Following a disastrous and ill-advised assault against a heavily fortified German position known as the Ant Hill, French General Mireau (George Macready), to save face and protect a promised promotion from his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), orders the court martial of three low-ranking soldiers for cowardice under penalty of death. Defending the men is their commanding officer Colonel Dax (Douglas), and the only hope he has winning their acquittal is to prove the attack itself was impossible.
Kubrick draws a clear line between the officers who lead and the men who fight. The generals live luxurious splendor, wining and dining a chateau far away from the front line, and holding fancy dinner balls while casually agreeing that a casualty rate of 65 percent is an acceptable loss. Early on, Mireau visits the trenches to observe the Ant Hill as a group of wounded soldiers pass by, unseen by their commander; to Mireau, the Ant Hill is a distant goal that means another star on his uniform while the price in taking it can be ignored. To his men, the Ant Hill is certain death. Later, Broulard all but admits to Dax the attack was doomed to fail and high command knew it, but to keep up appearances with the government, media, and folks back home, some action had to be taken to appease them. Meanwhile, the common soldiers live in filthy conditions under a constant threat of gunfire and bombardment without support or relief, their lives short and terrifying.
Although he later developed a style known for its epic size, scope, and import, the Kubrick on display in Paths of Glory is tighter and more economical. Less than 90 minutes long, the film doesn't have a wasted moment and contains a number of subplots that all tie together: the artillery commander ordered by Mireau to bombard the French positions when they don't advance, the condemned Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) who witnessed a superior's cowardice and misconduct on a previous mission, and the backstabbing and jockeying for position of the high-ranking officers. With what would become his trademark cold, dark logic, Kubrick sees them all through to their sad, inevitable ends.