Thursday, April 8, 2010
Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory
1957's Paths of Glory, one of director Stanley Kubrick's first feature films, tells the story of a French army unit ordered into a 'suicide' mission to take a German command post during WWI. This mission falls to Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglas), who vehemently opposes the strategy, but is left with no choice by his superiors. The mission ultimately fails miserably, with a large portion of the French battalion refusing to leave their trenches and be mowed down by German artillery. Infuriated by the 'cowardice' of these men, General Mireau insists on executing a member from each company to serve as an example to the others. Colonel Dax unsuccessfully attempts to defend his men at their court-martial, but they are ultimately executed via firing squad. The film ends with Dax being offered a promotion by his superiors, which he furiously refuses, lamenting the comfortable distance they have from the battlefield.
This film, like Citizen Kane and other masterpieces of the black and white era, feel completely timeless in its scope and execution. As Orson Welles premiered several revolutionary film techniques in Kane, Kubrick is equally innovative here, bringing his camera into and through the trenches, tracking backwards through the narrow corridors. He also engineers ingenious shots with both foreground and background action, much like the frame below:
Say what you will about Kubrick's notorious perfectionism and his short temper, but the proof is in the pudding when something like Paths of Glory is as fresh nearly 60 years later as it likely was in when it was released. Unsurprisingly, the film's negative portrayal of military personnel and the shallow decision making process that was more rooted in the strategy of scoring a promotion than winning a war was not well-received throughout Europe. It did not premiere in France until 1975, and Francisco Franco of Spain managed to keep it out of Spanish theaters until 1986. These days, it is regarded as one of the most accurate and affecting portrayal of war ever made, and is preserved in the National Film Registry.
In less than 90 minutes, Kubrick achieves what films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line only hint at in nearly double the running time. The utter absurdity of war and the disconnect between those giving and those carrying out orders. The pawns of war are human lives and this disconnect only grows larger today. Superiors never see the effect of orders on their troops and troops themselves rarely see the consequences of their own actions, often firing ballistic missiles remotely, leaving others to survey the carnage. While Kubrick doesn't specifically indict the blood lust that accompanies war, he certainly condemns the 'just following orders' defense, as a heroic character refuses to fire on his own men after direct orders from a furious General Mireau. It is this abandonment of principles that Kubrick is most disturbed by and where his sharpest critiques lie. While order and obedience are valuable qualities in a military, what good are your values if you stifle them when you need them the most?