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other things to set the film apart, maybe it was the scenes of the charges and the carnage of No Man’s Land that originally made the film a hit with reviewers.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.”