Paths of Glory

Synopsis: A pivotal work by Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), Paths Of Glory is among the most powerful antiwar films ever made. A fiery Kirk Douglas (Ace In The Hole, Spartacus) stars as a French colonel serving in World War I who goes head-to-head with the army’s ruthless top brass when his men are accused of cowardice after being unable to carry out an impossible mission.

This haunting, exquisitely photographed dissection of the military machine in all its absurdity and capacity for dehumanization (a theme Kubrick would continue to explore throughout his career) is assembled with its legendary director’s customary precision, from its tense trench warfare sequences to its gripping courtroom climax to its ravaging final scene.
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Paths of Glory 8.5

eyelights: Kirk Douglas. the anti-war message. seeing the many failures of the process, from beginning to end.
eyesores: Timothy Carey.

 

Corporal Paris: “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.”

I actually don’t remember when I first saw ‘Paths of Glory’, but I suspect that it was soon after I first saw ‘The Killing‘ – a picture that snuck up on me and turned me into a die-hard fan of Stanley Kubrick. I have no doubt that I sought out his other pictures and stumbled upon ‘Paths of Glory’ soon thereafter.

That would have been about 15 years ago, and although I can’t remember my first experience, its impact was immediate and everlasting; while I had already seen ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Casualties of War’ and ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, to me no film represented the madness and injustice of war more than ‘Paths of Glory’.

It really spoke to me.

It also woke me to the talent of Kirk Douglas, an actor so far off my radar as to be virtually invisible. I knew of his son, of course, via ‘Romancing the Stone‘, ‘Black Rain’, ‘The War of the Roses’ and, of course, ‘Basic Instinct‘. I quite liked him, but was astounded by the powerhouse that his father was in here.

In fact, ‘Paths of Glory’ pretty much rides on his performance. While the material itself is fantastic -it’s a tightly-woven, suspenseful drama exploding with observations and critique- the role of the Colonel Dax is key to 2/3 of the picture, and a weaker actor would not have been able to give the piece the fire that it required.

Douglas commands the screen: his Colonel Dax, a former criminal defense lawyer, is a confident, persistent man who cannot allow injustice to befall his men. In every moment, one can feel how sharp his mind is, how everything is processed intently. He ably manoeuvres his way through the morass of backroom politics, at times being overt in his intentions, at others discretely making threats.

When he faces the court, in an attempt to save the three men who have been picked to represent their regiments, you can not only see, but feel, his utter outrage at the rampant miscarriages of justice taking place. And yet at only one time does he ever lose his composure, and only behind closed doors – the rest of the time, Dax is as steel: unpliable, unshakeable and immovable.

The performances were quite excellent all-round, actually (or almost…). It would have to be, in a character-focused and dialogue-based film such as this. Thankfully, its key players were exceptional: George Macready imbued General Mireau, Dax’ chief opponent, with the correct amount of ego, temperament and unscrupulousness, and Adolphe Menjou gives General George Broulard all the wily, two-faced treachery needed.

Everyone was generally decent, except for one: Timothy Carey, who plays Private Ferol. While I nonetheless love him, and was blown away by how sleazy he made his character in ‘The Killing’, he’s simply not a natural actor – he over-reaches too much for the material. Consequently, it dumbs the picture down slightly, giving it a melodramatic feel that would be more at home on mid-day soap operas. It’s a shame, because it’s just a misfit, an ill-advised casting decision.

I think that, aside from Douglas’ performance, the most alluring thing about ‘Paths of Glory’ is watching all the human failings interconnect, taking us eventually to our dramatic conclusion. The way that Broulard strokes Mireau’s ego into battle, how Lieutenant Roget lets his personal feelings affect his judgement, the fact that Mireau must save face at all costs, or how the military court expediently deals out its manufactured justice, and everything in between, all adds up to some especially riveting cinema.

Of course, the underlying element that threads everything together is a massive suspicion of war, and the motivations of these warmongers. From the moment that we are confronted with the fact that politics are the reason for making an ill-advised attack, under the pretence of heroism, we know that ‘Paths of Glory’ has a more critical view on the subject. By the time that we get into the trenches, we are hardly surprised to find that the travails of war have little to do with honour and heroism.

for this reason, it was quite wise to make a movie about World War I instead of World War II, and also in setting it in the French camp. This permitted the filmmakers to discuss the issues a couple of steps removed, without hitting too close to home – thereby preventing them from offending audiences or having their own patriotism questioned.

In light of the jubilant post-War sentiment in the United States at the time, this was probably a very bold move nonetheless – it could have proved quite controversial in some circles, especially when one considers Senator McCarthy. Having said this, when one considers his ‘Ace in the Hole‘ and ‘Spartacus’, it’s clear that Kirk Douglas was an especially bold actor in those days (his era’s Robert Redford or George Clooney, perhaps?); if anyone had the cojones, he did.

All this to say that ‘Paths of Glory’ is not only a terribly entertaining picture, but its observations on military justice (an oxymoron if ever there was one!),  the intricacies of the human heart and the frailties of humankind pertain to this day and age – and no doubt to future generations as well. It’s a motion picture worthy of attention and discussion: after all, how can we ever move forward as a race if we let human egos get in the way of fairness and justice for all?

Colonel Dax: “Because you don’t know the answer to that question, I pity you.”

Date of viewing: November 11, 2012

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