These days it is 100 years since the battle at the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, a war sadly renowned for its bloody battles and waste of human lives. It seems therefore fitting that my next movie is “Paths of Glory”, one of the best WWI movies ever made.
WWI was in many ways an idiotic war. Idiotic in its premise, idiotic in its execution and, not least, idiotic in its military arrogance. For this reason, I believe, all movies about this war must be about one or more of these items of stupidity. “Paths of “Glory” is about the third kind and in all its absurdity probably not far from the truth. It is in fact based on a true story.
In 1916 the Western Front has mired down into trench warfare, where heavily fortified positions remains largely immobile and the current mode of attack, foot soldiers storming across a death zone of barbed wire and machinegun fire, is completely ineffective and costly. In this impasse the French general staff has decided that they need to take a particularly difficult hill called Ant Hill and that General Mireau (George Macready) is the man to do it with his division. Mireau at first protests arguing that his division is decimated and that the chance of success is slim. However when sweet tongued General Broulard (Adolphe Mejou) waves a promotion in front of his nose he turns around and declares it fait accompli.
Mireau does not really have a plan for the attack. He, like most of the upper echelon at the time, is convinced that if the soldiers show the right fighting spirit that will do the job. In fact he is so disconnected from reality that his visit to the front to instruct his troops is almost comical. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), in charge of the regiment to make the assault, is bullied into compliance and Mireau is completely impervious to common sense. When this ill-conceived attack goes belly up Mireau goes apoplectic and, convinced that failure must be due to cowardice, orders the artillery to fire on his own units. The artillery commander refuses the order unless he gets it in writing and as it is not forth coming this is where the attack ends.
Mireau, whose pride is badly hurt, swears revenge on his unworthy soldiers and wants to execute them for disobedience. Broulard manages to talk him down to killing just three soldiers as an example and that clears the case for the generals. The cause of the failure is settled and taken care of so they can go back to their luxurious life far behind the front.
However Dax, who was a criminal defense lawyer before the war, is infuriated at the randomness and unfairness of having three innocent men blamed and killed for something they had no hand in. The better part of the movie follows these three soldiers, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel), as they face the death penalty and Colonel Dax as he tries, ultimately in vain, to defend three innocent men against what his superiors is finding expedient.
The purpose of the story is to make us angry and it does. Well, me at least. The arrogance of these generals is infuriating. The way lives can be spent as a matter of expedience is outrageous and they learn nothing of the whole affair. But there is also a larger absurdity here because the real crime is not to condemn these three people to death, but to condemn the hundreds of thousands of people along the front to their deaths in useless attacks and counterattack. So why do we care for these three men? Kirk Douglass said it himself in one of his other movies, “Ace in the Whole”. If you kill millions in a war it is statistics, but one guy stuck in a hole, that gets people’s attention. In this way Stanley Kubrick uses this handle to tell us a story we otherwise could not comprehend because the numbers are just too big.
I generally like Stanley Kubrick and this is the first movie on the List. “Paths of Glory” I only knew from reputation and I was looking very much forward to watching it. Years ago I went to an excellent Stanley Kubrick exhibition in Berlin and I remember that this was the only movie on display I had never heard of, but that it was highly recommended. Fortunately my expectations were met, this movie has all the touches of Kubrick, precision, satirical bite, dark fatalism and amazing cinematography. Mireau is not a Dr. Strangelove, but he is cut with just enough absurdity to underline his arrogance. WWI is not “Clockwork Orange”, but the wanton and random violence is remarkably similar. I also like that Kirk Douglass, a mega star in 1957, is not Kirk Douglass, but Colonel Dax, that Kubrick managed to curb the star and let him be the role.
I am still wondering about the meaning of the ending. So far I get that it demonstrate the absurdity of the fighting, but I am convinced there is something more we need to get out of it, something maybe relating to the execution, but I need to think about this a little more.
“Paths of Glory” gets my warmest recommendations. It is a strong contender to the best picture of 1957 and in another year it might have been the best. Do not make my mistake and wait ten years to watch it, but go see it. It is 100 years since this madness took place and right now Europe is doing its best to forget it.