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Paths of Glory

Back when yours truly was caught in the full tide of adolescent angst, I had a thing for Kubrick movies. They were — I thought — pinnacles of cinematic brilliance, and even if I had no lived experience with which to relate the spectacle they presented me, I made a point of claiming to like them. It was part of the way I fashioned my teenage hipster identity, and the garish images of the old ultraviolent seemed to me to be exceptionally fitting. Oh to be young and stupid! Though I had no idea what the pinnacle of cinematic brilliance was supposed to mean (I remain uncertain, though am more sure, now, that it doesn’t apply to Kubrick’s work), I had absorbed the idea the Kubrick was an auteur from a film magazine that a buddy of mine and I used to read. The buddy and I took it upon ourselves to see every Kubrick film, and did eventually get around to most of them, but never to “Paths of Glory.” This might have been unfortunate, but I doubt I would have appreciated the film them, at least, in the way that I viscerally appreciated “Full Metal Jacket.” It’s far less spectacular. Or, its spectacle is dated.

It’s hard for me to pull out of “Paths of Glory” anything that makes it brilliant. It’s a solid genre film. That’s all. Sort of like “The Killing.” It’s got nothing to particularly recommend its director to the reputation he’s garnered as the American McAuteur of the 20th century, nor does it really hold any surprises. By contemporary cinematic standards it’s a bit jarring: we Americans would want our wrongly indicted soldiers to be spared. We’d crave for Justice. And for that we can turn on any current iteration of “Law and Order.” But according to the shape of narrative structure, these men have to die; the machinations of Society — the generals, the brass, the real acknowledged actors in the film, movers and shakers — must go on. There’s nothing we can do about it. And the movie conveys this deftly, seemlessly. But not magnificently. Nor is it particularly revolutionary: no one disobeys in the film. They march as calmly to their deaths via firing squad as they charge toward the German lines. Mutiny, anyone?

Without other things to set the film apart, maybe it was the scenes of the charges and the carnage of No Man’s Land that originally made the film a hit with reviewers. “No picture” it seems, “evere dared cross it before”! In a genealogy of spectacle perhaps this is an important moment. The explosive rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, bodies falling like dolls. It’s engrossing, but quaint (now! We’ve come so far with our spectacles of the trenches) to watch. That may have been a draw. It is so very fun to watch wars.

I can’t help but be drawn into the last scene — I’m showing my humanism — which depicts a shift in soldiers’ attitude toward a woman, who is supposed to be their entertainment. The scene opens uncomfortably, with the soldiers seated around a small stage onto which the woman, a German captive, apparently, is led. She is weeping, the soldiers are cheering, the owner of the bar is demeaning. It’s a disgusting image. She is forced to sing: at first she cannot be heard over the howls, whistles, shouts and banging from the soldiers. Gradually her voice causes them to fall silent, they cease their racket, and begin to hum along. It’s a moving transition. I suppose if I spoke German I’d have something to say about “the Faithful Hussar.”

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3 Responses

  1. Kubrick’s film was in defense of the “common” man, and his film was about, I thought, showing the horror these men are put through and with little appreciation. They fight wars for us and take the brunt of the wars political image, which in this film meant a suicidal dash, an unreasonable death for most , and a court marshal for a few. I would say they did disagree within the limits of their power, which was not much as the movie showed.

    The soldier’s were the characters we were meant to admire. If you think about movies like Paton or all of our war “hero” films, this is perhaps unique to Kubrick in 1957.

    I would say there were two disobeyed orders in the film, those remaining in the trenches, although it turns out they really tried to get out, and those that would not fire on their own men. As was also shown, not following orders, even for Douglas, was a risky game.

  2. Well, I don’t think that they were shown to be fighting for “us” so much as for Gen. Mireau’s promotion. But they didn’t disagree beyond the sanctioned limits of their power, when in truth the effect of disobedience and obedience were going to be the same: you refuse to go up and out of the trench, you get shot; you go up and out of the trench you get shot; you miraculously survive the charge, you get shot. Why not mutiny? Whenever emotion gets the best of people in the film, they’re told to be a man!, to get back in line. All lines seem to lead to death, so why not step off them and plug a couple of generals on your way? This is unfathomable in the narrative operation of this movie.

    I dunno. I’d have to watch a bunch more war films. “Battle of Algiers” came out only nine years later. “Patton,” is thirteen years later. A whole slew of hyperpatriotic pap seems to have come out immediately after WWII (in opposition to the films that came out after WWI, which are supposed to have been anti-war). WWI exhausted artistic production, made victory pointless; WWII inspired it, and made victory triumpant. At least in American cinema.

  3. Yes, the gunner refused to fire on his own men, but only because he didn’t want to be shot post facto when the general denied having given the order. Everything was done in the shadow of the Law.

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