Monday, December 10, 2012

Paths of Glory

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the jury deliberates for quite a long time before delivering a guilty verdict against Tom Robinson. In Paths of Glory (1957), we go immediately from Colonel Dax's (Kirk Douglas) impassioned closing defense to the firing squad going over preparations the night before the scheduled execution. Unlike Mockingbird, there was never a hope for acquittal or even any promise of long-term change. The corrupt system remains in place, and people continue to suffer.

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.

Watching Paths of Glory again, I was reminded of another work: Catch-22 Like Joseph Heller's novel, Paths of Glory is a portrayal of a military bureaucracy taken to the extreme, but while Catch-22 is satirical and absurd, Kubrick's movie (based on a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb) is stark and nightmarish. When Dax protests the attack was impossible, Mireau snaps that if it was impossible, the only proof would be the men's dead bodies. Broulard also notes later on that shooting a man now and then is an effective way to maintain discipline. "There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than watching someone else die." Only someone so insulated from suffering, so oblivious to the lives of those under his command, could be so dismissive of other human beings.

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.

The assault on the Ant Hill is horrifying in the loss of life depicted. The scene begins with a tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches as his men stand ready to go over the top, nervously huddled together while explosions grow closer and more frequent, the tension building up. The men swarm out across the open, muddy "No Man's Land" as machine guns and artillery cut them down by the dozens. Kubrick follows the combat from a long shot of the mass of soldiers intercut with shots of the men scrambling through  the mud and barbed wire, As the agonizing sequence continues, the film cuts to Dax's point-of-view to show they haven't even made it half way across.

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.

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