Memorial Day Memories #2: Paths of Glory (1957) by Kubrick
I love The Dirty Dozen (1967), Midway (1976), and The Guns of Navarone (1961) for Memorial Day, but I tried to make some new Memorial Day memories by watching this Stanley Kubrick movie, which I found was pretty darn intense. Roger Ebert once listed this film as one of the best, and other critics have also named this film one of the best of all-time, but I personally didn’t see it until this Memorial Day. Certainly, perennial films like The Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) are seen on television all the time, but this film isn’t. I think that may be because it has a downer of an ending. With that in mind, I had to see for myself if this film lived up to the hype.
Stanley Kubrick directed this film and its story is from a famous novel. Kubrick is a controversial director. Maybe he has more acclaim today, but many of his films were hit and miss when they were released. You can’t deny the sheer genius of Dr. Strangelove (1964) though, or the innate beauty found in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Paths of Glory (1957) is a war movie, so in that way, we’re not going to have much beauty and there isn’t any slapstick or jokes. This is a realistic look at war and its purposeless slaughter, perhaps similar to Sergio Leone’s main point in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
This movie stars Kirk Douglas. He was age 41. It was not even close to his first movie, and it was not his last. He starred in my favorite Kirk Douglas movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. In this movie, he plays Colonel Dax, a French commander of some note. He contrasts the other military leaders in the film very nicely with his humanistic attitude, and he comes off as sympathetic.
This movie is about the French military of World War I and its policies. You never hear about the French in either World War I or World War II, not as a fighting force anyway. Maybe as a location for battles and such, but the French military is largely forgotten, relegated to victims of the Germans. This movie shows how France is caught in the war, stuck between a rock and a hard place because things are going badly. Many of the missions are suicide missions and morale is low. The movie begins with discussion about one such suicide mission.
However, Kirk Douglas as Dax is not included in on this debate. He’s simply thrown into it and asked to plan an attack to take Ant Hill, perhaps the most fortified of all German positions in the area. Of course, he fails. I say of course because everyone believes that Ant Hill is nearly impossible to take, even the commanding staff. The General who ordered the attack was bucking for a promotion. And that is where our chief conflict for this movie comes from and it allows Kirk Douglas to do some amazing stuff.
The film is also about the human element. The French leaders seem to dismiss everyone’s doubts and fear, even in the face of insurmountable odds. One lowly soldier doesn’t want to be killed, so he’s slapped. Others are executed for their cowardice, played off as patsies for the failures at the French front. It is interesting that this is shown so earnestly and truthfully. Men do get scared. Men are not hard as rocks. Even in war, humanity is important.
While the French leaders combat fear with bullets, Dax believes in the human element and in more realistic objectives. His superior says that soldiers should act like soldiers and toughen up, like true patriots. In arguing with his superior, Dax quotes Samuel Johnson, saying that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It’s kinda amusing, as Dax didn’t really mean to insult his boss, or at least didn’t intend to. However, he just can’t get over how he’s supposed to take the Ant Hill. It’s impossible.
All I know is, nobody wants to die. –Unnamed Soldier
The above simple quote pretty much sums up the feelings of all the men. Every single one of them. During the famous trench walk scene, Dax sees this feeling first hand. He doesn’t even flinch, which is a testament to the military prowess and toughness of the man. The movie makes us wonder if a man can be a realistic officer, but still be a hero. There’s nothing heroic about Dax’s march to start the advance on Ant Hill. He dreads it. It’s like the first day of high school for every freshman ever.
After his troops are slaughtered, Colonel Dax tries to defend three men who are picked as examples from the fighting force for court-martial, then execution. The court-martial is a farce. His superiors are unrelenting and want to take every opportunity to step on someone else for failure. They’ll do whatever they can to stick it to Colonel Dax, and don’t care that the attack was impossible. It’s laughable to me. It’s so funny that it makes me want to scream.
We can’t leave it up to the men to tell us if an attack is impossible or not. If it was impossible, then their dead bodies should be at the bottom of those trenches. —General Mireau
In his call for blood, General Mireau comes off as a sadistic, or at the very least, very insane and bloodthirsty. It’s like the Germans have somehow attacked him personally and he intends to come out looking good, instead of as a General who has almost lost the country. He threatens Dax. Mireau is a real villain, even more than Magneto and Lex Luthor put together.
The court-martial really boils my blood. Dax defends them as best he can, but it’s like trying to run in quicksand. None of the events really matter, as the three men are just set up as examples, as patsies. The general staff tries to justify this in perhaps the most idiotic and laughable comment in the whole entire movie:
Stupid General #1: You see Colonel, troops are like children. Just like a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.
Colonel Dax #1: Do you sincerely believe all the things you’ve just said?
Stupid General #1: [silence]
The three men falsely accused of cowardice are all executed. It is one of the most morally disgusting things I’ve seen on film. The film builds to this point brilliantly, and I have to really complement Kirk Douglas as well as the other actors in selling the theme. The dialogue drips with irony. It is perfect.
The film ends as the troops on leave cheer for a German girl at a bar, who is forced to sing a song. It is a deeply grief-filled song, and they are moved. The troops bow their heads and hum along, as if knowing it. They also know cowardice, like every man, and the movie explains that man should know humanity and emotion too.