Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)
The eyes get to you first. Kirk Douglas’ eyes as he surrenders his stoic facade and silently admits to the inhuman exhaustion of an unwinnable battle. The eyes of three men aware they are meant to die and each interpreting the matter differently. The eyes of fear, of hatred, of unfeeling deception. For Stanley Kubrick, every story of war may as well be told through facial expressions rather than guns and trenches and cannons — all that matters in Paths of Glory, the film that placed him on the cinematic map of the world, is the way these people look upon one another: crying for compassion, dripping with contempt or pleading for an impossible understanding, good or evil, but all of them serving some sort of insane duty against the background of an insane war with the unmistakable sense that a looming, omniscient dread is calling the shots — not any human being.
Eyes also reveal the sense of reality to the characters in this World War I tragedy; for all of Douglas’ attachment to the melodramatic flourish, he is never absent of an honest gravity. In the film’s perception of evil, it falters, and you can see it in the steely uncaring of George Macready’s stone-cold gaze upon everything. That’s because it reveals simplicity, and in nothing else within this film — including several secondary characters’ terrible and all too casual division between duty and compassion — is simplicity, rather than humanity, a key element of the emotional narrative.
Maybe it’s for these reasons that when I first saw Paths, as a teenager, it blindsided me and sent me into a teary-eyed, clinched-fist, peace-mongering rage at the wrongness and badness of war. It’s a powerful, communicative, very direct film and in a lot of ways it speaks closely to an adolescent conception of injustice. It stems from the partially true story of three members of the French army executed for cowardice in a suicide mission; the film embellishes the facts slightly by adding the most loathsome element of all — that these individuals have been chosen at random to die for the actions of the larger group. (The specific case upon which the film draws inspiration was a court martial for mutiny, not cowardice.) Such actions were rare in warfare of the period, but they did occur. Paths of Glory, like the Humphrey Cobb novel it’s based on, conflates these two deeply troubling events.
The screenplay by Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham proceeds with a sort of sickening inevitability. There are attempts by Douglas’ valiant Colonel Dax to stop the madness he’s witnessing, to prevent three boys from dying for no reason, but they are all doomed the moment the straws are drawn, and following the already harrowing menace of the early trench battle sequence — captured in intensely ragged tracking shots by Kubrick and Georg Krause — we spend time essentially watching the men wrestle with death. Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel and the especially memorable Timothy Carey (a veteran of The Killing) each explore the terrible nuances of their characters’ plight with an enlightening thoroughness. When they are found guilty and killed by a firing squad — one of them (Turkel’s Arnaud) is by now unconscious after a fight in the prison — there is nowhere else for the story to go. Its bleakness is absolute, its sense of despair overpowering. Some vain stabs at retribution come too late. All that’s left is to cry out in the night — yet somehow Kubrick finds a way to do this, and to do it cinematically.
As I’ve gotten older, Paths — which seems so incendiary when one first encounters it — has struck me as a slightly lesser Kubrick film, perhaps even inferior to his other war picture Full Metal Jacket, largely because villainous General Mireau (Macready) is both written and played so broadly and cartoonishly, to the extent that he’s almost analogous to Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. (Douglas, when you think about it, is also given surprisingly little to do except glance around disapprovingly as if a mere audience vessel — but his performance is very strong anyway.) An argument can easily be made that this is the director’s simplest major film. It doesn’t have the scope and sprawl of Spartacus — amounting after its first scenes almost to a chamber piece — or the sophisticated, inventive narrative of The Killing, and its entire essence can be described in a single line.
That, however, is speaking only of the film’s story content. Kubrick’s technique is another matter; just a year after the scrappy, breakneck-paced The Killing, which sacrificed slickness for excitement, he seems to have grown immeasurably as a director. His lengthy takes both indoors and out (and his growing infatuation with unnerving symmetry) are informed by Max Ophuls and have an inscrutable but somehow not inappropriate romance about them. This is no ordinary war picture, and not just because the battle sequences are over after twenty minutes. It’s the first of the great filmmaker’s works to seek out beauty rather than ugliness, even in places that seem wholly divorced from all conception of warmth and human kindness. It certainly feels like no other American film about war made prior to it; the juxtaposition of its formidable size with its intimacy toward the actors lends it a sense of simultaneous professionalism and artful imbalance. It feels like an unresolved, nagging fright. The Killing is a superior film, but Paths of Glory is even more singular an experience, and arguably its conflation of horror and visual poetry has informed the war film vernacular ever since, especially in the likes of Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Unlike Coppola, however, Kubrick does not see poetry and realism as mutually exclusive. No flaw in characterization or early pacing can disrupt the haunting nature of Paths of Glory‘s second half, and in most of these sequences the film is so strong it can make the excellent Spartacus, three years later, seem like a regression. There are those who feel Kubrick never topped the simple eloquence of Paths of Glory, and as strongly as most of us probably disagree, it’s not an entirely incomprehensible position. Those same fluid long takes that gave the battle sequences their sense of you-are-there systematic horror serve to silently decry the dissolve of conscience and compassion by the immovable institutions of war. Carey, Meeker and Turkel look tiny and lost in the hallowed tribunal courtroom, and Dax can fight as hard as he can, using his civilian training as a defense lawyer, but the legitimized anger and evil of a man like Mireau can’t be budged. In tun there is the irony of a safe escape from a harsh, unforgiving battlefield and a loss of life within the comfortable confines of a brightly lit and friendly French military headquarters.
The entire buildup to — and actual carrying out of — the sickening murder at the heart of the film is nearly as harrowing as the body of that other classic antiwar film about WWI, All Quiet on the Western Front, and serves as an antidote to the act of distancing in so many war films. By engaging in an act of malicious revenge of his own, however justified, Dax shows a piece of the cold-hearted catharsis that suggests we’re not so far apart, good or bad. The cell they’re in is an expressionistic, layered blanket of shadows — the stuff of silent horror. The interplay of the three men — and the grave sense of their respective inner lives — is powerful and deeply disturbing, the treatment of them so risible you almost can’t watch. Carey’s shatteringly sad panic is especially unforgettable as he seems barely even a grown man and yet he’s then unafraid of allowing his emotions to well up and burst forth up to the final seconds of his life. Well before that, he also provides one of the biggest fatalistic laughs in any film made outside of Ealing with his response to Meeker’s speech about a cockroach that he realizes will see another sunset after this one. Meeker himself, though, is the source of the film’s most devastating moment and one of the most telling, human breakdowns in cinema: when he makes a small confession about sex and then loses his stoic steadiness, as one assumes anyone would in the face of this misery.
As to the famous final scene, it’s almost divorced from the rest of the film, a general comment on the tragedies of war and death and one of the most powerful moments in Kubrick’s career. Among other things, it’s a harsh rebuke to any one of the innumerable people who’ve incomprehensibly argued that his films are unfeeling or unemotional; after seeing it, you wonder how that ever became conventional wisdom (and it’s not isolated). His future wife Christiane plays a captured German civilian, forced at the insistence of a bunch of greasy, horny army guys to sing for them. They laugh at her, then slowly they remember who they are, and something happens that none of them — and no one who writes about movies — can really articulate. Her meek, raw, terrified character is yet another face you never forget, as your anger at the men yelling derisive things at her slowly evolves into pity for all in the room. In that moment, Douglas is an observer just like us — and then he presses on, another day coming. Because even confronted with the absolute injustice and meaninglessness of it all, that’s all we ever really do.