Paths of Glory FILM review
Apr 5, 2007, 06:25
PATHS OF GLORY directed by Stanley Kubrick; Criterion Collection, 1989 LD
If great art does not provide answers so much as pose questions with a profundity that demands our full engagement, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of GloryÂ (originally released in 1957) is certainly among the finest American films of the second half of this century.
The story is familiar territory: a politically motivated kangaroo court martial during war time. But Kubrick's screenplay (co-written by Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson) and direction are so acute as to make the familiar haunting.
We are in the final days of WW I's trench warfare. General Mireau (George Macready) is told by his superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), that it's a political necessity to attempt to take a German position that is known to be impregnable. Mireau balks at first but succumbs once it's made clear that a promotion is his if he succeeds. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) leads the futile charge the next day, and the results are ruinous. In a fit of pique Mireau demands that an example be set by court marshaling a man chosen by lot from each of three platoons. Dax, a celebrated criminal attorney in France, serves as their defense; realizing it's a rigged game, he tries to trump the court's guilty verdict by revealing to Broulard, the night before the execution, that Mireau ordered his own men fired upon during the charge, and implies that public knowledge of this fact would be damaging to the military. Broulard appears to take Dax's blackmail under consideration, but nonetheless—and somewhat inexplicably—the execution is carried out as planned. Later that same day, Broulard informs Dax that his blackmail worked: Mireau's military career will be ruined upon a formal investigation of his command during the battle and Dax will replace him. Dax is stunned that Broulard would so obtusely misread his motives; there follows a philosophically illuminating exchange culminating in Dax's furious denunciation of Broulard.
The film is in part a morality play with a conflict between two clearly delineated points of view; as such it fortuitously plays to what I consider to be Kubrick's greatest weakness as a director: his methodical cold-bloodedness. His films have increasingly begun to resemble carefully filmed blueprints in which human beings are less important than the conceptual schemata (best exemplified by 2001, but evident in just about everything he's done in the last 30 years). But, the characters' own cold-blooded machinations are perfectly dramatized by Kubrick's self-consciously theatrical direction, his slow, cyclical camera movements, and intense close-ups. The result is an exquisite appropriateness of form and content.
The Conflict is between two fundamentally different views of humanity. Mireau and Broulard are both pure political animals and insensate careerists with an aristocratic disdain for enlisted men, or, one gathers, anyone who would impede their ambitions. (The film is as much anti-class as anti-war.) Human life is subservient to their brand of pragmatism. Dax is more mindful of humans and believes that treating men decently should come above brute political considerations that demand the contrary. He is an idealist and a sentimentalist, as Broulard contemptuously refers to him in the film's climax (“I pity you as I would the village idiot.”) The film brings us to a singular moment of moral clarity when Mireau reveals, casually and therefore all the more horrifyingly, that he never considered the possibility that Dax threatened blackmail in order to save the three condemned men; that he instinctually assumed Dax leveled the threat in order to damage Mireau's career and attain his command. Logically, to have correctly understood Dax's motive would have been contrary to his character. He had imposed his own point of view onto Dax: the deaths of the three men meant nothing to him and could perforce mean nothing to Dax.
There isn't a wasted word in the screenplay. For example, Dax's fundamental decency is defined early in the film during a terse exchange between him and General Mireau's aide. When the toadying aide sneers at the men's tendency to huddle together during shelling, “a herd instinct” he calls it, “kind of a lower animal sort of thing,” Dax sharply rejoins, “Kind of a human sort of thing. Or don't you make a distinction between the two?” The two Generals' contempt for the infantry is made manifest throughout the film. Accusing the men of cowardice during the battle, General Mireau tells Dax, “They're scum, Colonel, the whole rotten regiment, a pack of sneaking, whiney, tail-dragging curs.” During a sumptuous post-execution dinner, General Broulard elaborates to Dax and Mireau on his theory of the executions as an expedient: “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die. You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”
But, in a controversial coda, Kubrick appears to dispel the clear-cut moral division he worked so forcefully to present. After Dax's confrontation with Broulard, Dax stops outside a pub where a young German woman (Susanne Christian) is being humiliated for the entertainment of his troops. Through the window he watches his men whooping, hollering, and whistling obscenely at the frightened woman. Their behavior confirms the earlier description of them as “lower animals.” Finally, the woman is forced to sing; her voice is a mixture of fear, tentativeness, confusion, awkwardness, and loveliness. The men's demeanor slowly changes from raucous vulgarity to humility and shame to finally, a kind of empathy or comprehension as they begin to sing or hum with her, and to openly weep, in the face, as it were, of unexpected sublimity. There follows a succession of quick cuts from one face to another, each one as moving and authentic as a photograph by Walker Evans. It's a transcendent moment. Their baser impulses were defeated by the woman's dignity and lack of artifice. Moreover, there is an implicit tension here between the perception of the mass and the individual: initially, they are a mob who become individuals capable of responding to a woman's ineffable humanity. But, what is Kubrick telling us? That one cannot look upon humanity in the mass without a degree of ambivalence if one's going to be absolutely honest about it? That man's civilized potentialities depend entirely on context? That man has to be coerced or manipulated into perceiving his own humanity? None of these questions necessarily mitigate the rightness of Dax's moral position so much as they force us to acknowledge the complexities one has to sift through to form it..
Douglas' acting deserves special consideration. To anyone who thinks of Douglas primarily as an actor who bellows angst-ridden melodramatic tropes through gritted teeth, this film will be a revelation. Douglas is clearly the moral and dramatic center of the film and his performance is crucial. The intensity of his performance parallels his awareness of the deepening injustice throughout the film; from a stolid initial presence to the controlled but genuine indignation mixed with lawyerly guile of his speech at the court martial to a verbal explosion of revulsion when he finally comprehends the depth of Broulard's immorality. When at the end of his confrontation with Broulard the screen fills with a gigantic close-up of his face his upper lip quavers almost imperceptibly as he tries to control his—what?—anger, disgust, bewilderment? The play across Douglas' face as he watches his men's transformation in the pub hints at incomprehension; and the look on his face as he turns away finally parallels our own difficulty in making rational sense of what we've just seen and how—or if—it relates to what's gone before
When Dax turns away from the pub, for the first time he looks uncertain, even crushed. His Sergeant walks up to inform him that the men have been ordered back to the front. He appears to snap out of his uncomfortable introspection, and replies automatically, “Give the men a few more minutes.” And what does this mean? Is he, out of compassion, allowing them a few more minutes of humanity before returning to the slaughter? Or is he treating them like children, bribing them with a little candy before doing the dirty job of fighting for nationalism? In another instance of brilliant physical acting, Douglas walks away and within a few steps regains his strict military composure along with the certainty we've come to associate with him throughout the film. The doubts that raced across his face a few seconds earlier have disappeared. It's as if in that transitional moment he put behind him the whole unpleasant experience of the previous 24 hours and is ready to return to business as usual, which, in the context of a politically charged war, means enduring injustices large and small. It took an extraordinary event to bring out the best qualities of his men in the pub. Is he, in fact, so very different from them?