Paths of Glory
Director: Stanley Kubrick / Script: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson (from Humphrey Cobb’s novel) / Editing: Eva Kroll / DP: Georg Krause
Cast: Kirk Douglas / Ralph Meeker / Adolphe Menjou / George Macready / Wayne Morris / Richard Anderson / Joe Turkel / Christiane Kubrick / Emile Meyer / Bert Freed / Timothy Carey
WAR! What is it good for?
Sanley Kubrick’s fourth feature, Paths of Glory follows-on from a couple of self-produced action flicks and his first, noirish studio release, The Killing (1956). The director came across the original novel (by Humphrey Cobb) as a teenage reader and was reportedly keen to adapt it for the screen even then. Fate, as usual, saw to it that he and producing partner James Harris, would eventually secure the rights and make their film; Kubrick’s breakout success with The Killing, ensuring support for something altogether more ambitious…
To save on a still-limited budget, the production looked to Europe for its key locations, but rather than choose somewhere in France or the Low Countries as might’ve been expected, the advantageous tax breaks offered by Germany won-out. So we have a film, set in the trenches of World War 1, about the madness of war in general, and the moral ineptitude within the French Army in particular… On German soil? Welcome to the irony-free movie business!
Glory opens with a scene in a light and airy room of the Grand Style. Two French Generals – Broulard and Mireau – are congratulating each other on their taste, at having snagged such a palatial billet as the chateau in which they find themselves. This, after an opening VO has just told us how close the German forces had come to Paris, before the French rallied and drove them back across the River Marne. The subsequent consolidation of the front line, had both sides dig trenches and settle for a general stalemate, so these two antiquated fools have no reason for their attitudes, other than being entrenched themselves, in rank and privilege.
That’s why Kubrick has them moving about like ethereal sprites in this echo-chamber of a room, as it reinforces the idea of them as ‘Gods’. They live above the lives of the mere mortals, whose lives they direct, but with whom they seldom engage (and even then, as we shall soon see, such engagement is on a superficial level).
Broulard is played with a windbaggian (and thin-skinned) charm by Adolphe Menjou, who seems quite comfortable & pampered in the role. He’s at the chateau, to inveigle, charm and otherwise coerce the lower-ranking General Mireau, into attacking a German fortification called ‘The Anthill’. George Macready inhabits Mireau, with a heightened view of his own abilities as a leader of men and a spiky pomposity, no doubt aided by the addition of a prosthetic duelling scar on his right cheek; to signal he’s of the old school, when ‘gentlemen’ settled scores without starting a World War…
But he’s blind to what’s really going on; how he’s being ‘played’ by Broulard, who just has to dangle the idea of a promotion, to get this shallow popinjay to agree to the attack, despite Mireau’s initial reservations about its prospects. Who knows? Maybe Mireau WILL take The Anthill after all…
No matter if he fails: If Paths of Glory has any one theme, its that there’s always another Anthill, someplace else…
Here we see the first allusion in Kubrick’s vision: the futility of war. By 1916, the conflict had become a stalemate. Yes, odd incursions, raids and even advances had won territorial gains for each side, in an ebb and flow of nominal gains and losses, but little was ‘pushing the needle’ decisively in any one direction. Yet the Senior Staff on either side, along with their political masters, couldn’t accept the idea, for its likely adverse effect on morale across all fronts, both at Home and on the Front Line. So, arbitrary objectives were often set (‘take that hill’, ‘bridge that river’) that, if achieved, would give the impression of a breakthrough, rather than something more substantial: but the overall stalemate
wouldn’t couldn’t be broken. The Generals found themselves in a ‘War of Attrition’ and it was just a question of which side would break first.
In Cobb’s book, the objective was called ‘The Pimple’, but Kubrick changed it for the more cinematic, emblematic ‘Anthill’: just a string of blockhouses running along a ridge-line. Broulard wants it taken, to move the Front and keep faith with the politicians back in Paris. Once he’s on-board with the idea, Mireau wants it taken to ensure his promotion… Hundreds, if not thousands of men are about to be sacrificed for these two men’s vanity…
Now heady with the whiff of his own self-importance, Mireau trips along to the ‘real’ front, to pass on the good news to Colonel Dax, a man who looks a lot like Kirk Douglas. On the way, Mireau questions three soldiers about their morale. The first two give pat answers but, following the ‘rule of three’, the last Private he meets, replies in a dreamlike fug, that’s passed-off by his NCO as ‘shell-shock’. This enrages Mireau who, ominously, doesn’t believe such a thing exists… He orders the man to be transferred out of the regiment tout-suite, rather than have his ‘weakness’ infect others in the line; an astonishing way to build-out Mireau’s character.
Mireau, accompanied by his aide, Major Saint-Auban (an early role for Richard Anderson), meets with Dax in his dingy, grimy dug-out, who opens his account of the previous night’s failed operation, with an excuse: poor morale. Having just heard Mireau belittle a man for suffering shell-shock, Saint-Auban jumps-in, calling the tendency of the men to huddle together whilst under-fire as being ‘a lower animal sort of thing’. It’s a breathtaking opinion to be sure and it’s little wonder that Dax riles at the Major upon hearing it, citing Samuel Johnson in his defence (‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’).
Mireau bristles at this in-turn and does a little emotional blackmail of his own. He needs Dax to lead the attack (he’s not going to do it himself, now is he?). So he threatens him with indefinite leave from the Front line – a move he KNOWS Dax will want to avoid, out of his emotional attachment to his men; the same men, remember, whom both senior officers openly disdain.
There’s also needle between Dax and Saint-Auban. The former is either a conscript or volunteer (we’re never told), but before the war he was one ‘of France’s best lawyers’. That’s all the background we’re getting for now, but it’s enough… Although we know nothing about Saint-Auban’s past, the fact he’s aide to a General probably means he was a career soldier before the war. He knows nothing else, beyond his (élite) school, family and regiment. In an earlier era, he might be sporting his own duelling scar by now…
With the slightest of nods then, in both script and the physical distancing employed by Douglas and Anderson, Kubrick establishes this separate conflict. Mireau sees all, of course, like a puppeteer (but, remember, he can’t see that Broulard is pulling HIS strings).
It’s all so economical as a piece of film-making, that I’m left dazzled as to how Kubrick was able to pull it off, on just his fourth picture. The Killing might have fizzled on its release, rather than sparkle, but with that picture and this, Kubrick was elevating himself to the heights.
‘Zero-Hour’. The moment when Dax and his men go ‘over the top’ of their trench and begin advancing towards The Anthill, heralds a thrilling action sequence in which Kubrick uses a tracked dolly to run parallel to Dax’s fitful advance. Within the constraints of both set and budget, this section is a remarkable ‘one-take wonder’ that belies Kubrick’s lack of experience at the time of the shoot. The choreography of both principles and extras is remarkable, convincing and out-of-step with contemporaneous war pictures, which is why it still resonates today. It is a sequence out of time.
Not that the attack goes as planned. Whilst observing the action from a safe distance, Mireau notices that a company of men haven’t left their trench. He orders the artillery battery to commence firing on the position, in order to spur them forward… The battery commander refuses the order, which is just as well, as Dax now enters the trench to urge them on himself – only to witness, at first-hand – the terrible onslaught from enemy machine-guns. To advance from this position, is to commit futile, pointless suicide…
One thing leads to another. One man from each of the regiment’s three companies, are selected for a trial of ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’. Unsurprisingly, Dax gets to defend them at their ‘Court Martial’: a mock show-trial, that dispenses with protocol, as it wends its way to a devastating, pre-ordained outcome. What struck me here, was the sight of seeing the three Privates out of their customary trenches and in this airy pantheon; as incongruous a sight, as seeing Mireau walk the line earlier. They don’t belong there.
In the microcosm Kubrick’s baked into his picture, the Army IS France, in which a stratified society of class & privilege ensures division & protection. To watch the Senior Staff officers view the trio of ordinary soldiers, is to see scientists observing amoeba on a slide…
Even here, Kubrick uses his tracking dolly, having the camera follow Dax as he paces before the judges. As well as using another long take, he chooses to place the camera at a remove behind other, seated officers, leaving us to observe at a discreet distance. Lesser directors would’ve pushed-in to grab the emotions flickering across Douglas’ face, but Kubrick’s content to hold his close-ups in reserve, until they’re really needed. To a star of Douglas’ standing, this is a bold decision, but perhaps reflects the original nature of the book as an ensemble piece, before it was rebalanced by Mr Douglas (and his production company) towards the star.
While the courtroom scene opens the Third Act, Paths of Glory is closed by the sad execution of the three soldiers (no surprise: it’s on the poster) and the overdue fall-from-grace of one of the Generals and the repercussions that follow their own… The script handles the moment of release with a quick-fire, almost off-handed comment that elicits an immediate emotional response in-turn and I’d be interested to learn whether such economy was in Cobb’s original novel, or whether this is the famous ‘Kubrickian cognitive dissonance’ rearing its head? Dialogue is clipped & brisk. The work itself is taut, with little of the padding that would characterise his later films.
The film’s coda is missing from the script’s first draft and was added later, to give female viewers ‘something to take away’ and features a young German girl – a captive – singing for a crowd of soldiers packing-out the bar, next to Dax’s quarters. She’s weeping with terror over what she fears is imminent. Dax stands outside, listening to her song, as he receives orders that the regiment must return to the Front ‘immediately’.
His response? ‘Give the men a few minutes more’. The meat-grinder that’s chewing-up all these young lives isn’t going anywhere. The same, arbitrary objectives will still be there. So why not ‘let them have their moment’; their ‘Path of Glory’?
Kubrick does just that, because while the soundtrack is a constant din of catcalls, wolf-whistles and leerish banter, he lets the camera frame individual faces. Of boys. Scared boys. And watching them, scares us, in-turn. Only in a war movie, with its compressed narrative arcs and emotionless dialogue & exchanges, are such shots possible: and Kubrick knows it…
If the film has any real problems, I’d say that the issues it deals with, are all telegraphed well in-advance, leaving the script little room to play with subtlety. It’s predictable, even to a numbskull like me. Then again, maybe Kubrick was less interested in dialogue on this picture, as he was with its look; its staging & composition and how these elements could tell of deeper riches – truths, even – in the mise-en-scéne he was building.
I also wonder if Dax’s failure should’ve been explored in greater depth. After all, he accepts the premise of the doomed attack, almost without question (I thought officers were allowed, if not encouraged to ‘speak truth to power’?). He doesn’t prevent the three executions and he can’t stop the men from returning to the slaughter.
About the only thing he’s achieved in the entire picture, apart from stay alive, is to engineer the downfall of a senior officer – yet even in this, he verges on disaster. As he stands there, outside the bar, a look of infinite sadness passes over his face – as if knows all this, too.
The worse problem of all? Learning that Cobb had based his novel on an actual incident that’d occurred in 1915: little wonder that Kubrick’s Glory was banned in France until 1975 (and, weirdly, censored in Switzerland until 1970…). What better validation for an anti-war picture?
The men died wonderfully. There’s always a chance that one of them will do something that’ll leave a bad taste…