Sunday, March 8, 2015
PATHS OF GLORY
(December 1957, U.S.)
It feels like I've been away from the legendary Stanley Kubrick on this blog for ages now (the last film I discussed would have been LOLITA well over a year ago!). As my favorite film director of all time, I not only get a very unique and different feeling when I'm writing about a Kubrick film, but also when I'm watching one again...and again...and again. And just like any of his other great work, PATHS OF GLORY is an extraordinary screen experience in its own rights. Despite being an anti-war film in its message, it's visual black and white depictions and photography of the horrors and brutalities of World War I combat in the trenches and in no man's land are not only exciting, but graphically real (at least as real as it could be for a film released in the late 1950s). Take a look...
Kubrick's controversial anti-war message here is not in its brutal combat, but in the military court martial that follows a failed attack to capture a piece of the German's well-defended key territory known as the "Anthill". The mission is considered an undeniable impossibility from the moment it's proposed, even by the ambitious General Mireau (playded by George Macready) who insists (at first) that the lives and safety of the soldiers under his command are the most critical issue to him. This tune immediately changes as soon as the potential for a promotion is raised by his own military superior. Suddenly the taking of the "Anthill" seems not only possible, but is all but promised in order to further promote his own ambitions. This is now where we begin to see Kubrick's filming techniques at their best with his famous use of the tracking camera that he's repeated in many of his other films. One can't take their eyes off of General Mireau as he walks through the trenches asking war-weary soldiers if they're "ready to kill more Germans". Mireau is a French patriot at heart, but the price for this great patriotism is apparently the needless blood and lives of others. The regiment's Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglas) clearly sees through Mireau's personal ambitions and outwardly protests that the only result of this pointless attack will be to weaken the French Army with heavy losses for no benefit. And as foreseen, the attack is a bloddy massacre leaving many soldiers dead and causing many others unable to even advance out of the trenches. Here is where the paradox of military laws and hypocrisies enters the tale as Mireau, in a fit of uncontrollable rage of having failed the attack, orders the execution of all soldiers whom he believes showed cowardice in the face of the enemy. In a rather reasonable agreement over tea, this shameful order is eventually reduced to a court martial of three soldiers (picked at random, mind you) to stand as mere examples of those who will be executed for such cowardice in order for the failed attack not to leave a stain on the flag of France during wartime.
As stated, this court martial, in all of its true absurdity, is where Kubrick's anti-war and anti-military message lies. The bureaucracy behind the murder of three innocent soldiers of war is evidently clear not only in its judicial process, but also in its seemingly pre-determined verdict, as well. These soldiers are mere scapegoats for a failed mission inspired by military commanders who only seek to further their own personal ambitions and aspirations during a time when the flag of France and its patriotism during war is under close scrutiny by the press and the politicians of power. We're meant to sympathize and find the plight of these three men intolerable, but one can't also help but consider that this is all taking place under the actions of the country that was considered on the side of righteousness against the Germans, the enemy, during World War I. I'm not only suggesting that Kubrick was attempting to place a touch of empathy in our minds when considering the position of France in history, but rather also that in the case of global war, there may be no right or wrong side to consider and that war in its reality is wrong for all sides and for all reasons. In other words, during war there are no winners. I believe this was Kubrick's message that he would repeat years later in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) in which he makes a comical mockery of how in the face of nuclear war, there are also no winners.
Steven Spielberg once said that when Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999, among the many films he could have watched first, he chose PATHS OF GLORY first. What particularly caught his attention was the final scene in the inn when the French soldiers listen to a sentimental German folk song that is sung by the young woman who would one day become the future Mrs. Stanley Kubrick, and it's this same final sequence that I'd like to focus on for a moment, as well. These soldiers whom have just survived another horrible experience on the fields of battle are tired and in need of some entertainment, which is likely why they choose to freak out with glee at the sight of a lovely woman on the stage. Their rowdiness quiets down to a mood of somber reflection when the young girl begins to sing. What continues to puzzle me about this scene is exactly what and why their mood changes the way it does. Is it merely because they're quietly content to lose themselves in the sweet, young voice singing to them or is there something deeper in the song that's being sung? The German song is called "The Faithful Hussar" and it's a song of the enemy that the soldiers are clearly familiar with, as they hum the song along with the girl. Is it merely a pretty tune in the face of exhaustion or does it possess some specific and special meaning to them in that particular moment? Even after all these years of having watched PATHS OF GLORY, I still haven't quite figured that one out. Perhaps it's an ambiguous mystery that's best left alone in order to preserve a final moment in a film filled with a hard message and perhaps at the end, even a little hope. Perhaps it's something only Stanley Kubrick knew. Were he still with us, maybe I'd ask him. Maybe he'd even tell me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
General Broulard: "It would be a pity to lose your promotion before you get it. A promotion you have so very carefully planned for."
Colonel Dax: "Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?"
General Broulard: "Colonel Dax! You will apologize at once or I shall have you placed under arrest!"
Colonel Dax: "I apologize...for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can GO TO HELL before I apologize to you now or ever again!"