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DVD Review: Paths Of Glory

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Having grown up in the Vietnam era I knew many an ex-GI who would tell tales of fragging a bad C.O. Many older people, especially of the World War II generation, could never understand what would drive soldiers to loathe their superiors to the point of murder. Well, the answer is laid out in Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths Of Glory, like in no other. In fact, the film could well have been subtitled A Defense Of Fragging, if only the term had been coined.

Yet, the film not only anticipated things to come, in the field of war, but showed its endebtedness to the past because, of the many images and tropes culled, through the centuries, from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, perhaps none has resulted in a better and more perfectly realized work of art than Paths Of Glory, a film often wrongly and simplistically called an anti-war film (it is, but is also one of the 3 or 4 best WAR films ever made), and culled from these lines by Gray: 

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The film was the first ‘masterpiece’ film from Kubrick, and, unlike his earlier films, every scene hums with that Kubrickian flair. Based upon a novel by Humphrey Cobb, the film’s screenplay is seamless, and allows for prototypical Hollywood ‘leading man’ moments by star Kirk Douglas, scene-stealing antics by lesser lights, like Adolphe Menjou (‘These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division….One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.’) and Tim Carey, sad and funny moments (see the dead roach scene in the prison), swift exposition, as well as poignancy and depth, great ‘battle scenes’ and even better ‘courtroom drama’ scenes. It allows for petulance and hubris, as well as moral outrage. The screenplay, loosely based upon a real life World War One French military case, is so sublime that it makes one wonder where anyone ever got the idea that Kubrick was a ‘cold, calculating’ director? This film. Along with many others of his, should have had the critics crying that he was a ‘bleeding heart,’ or worse.

The narrative opens upon General George Broulard (Menjou) who orders his psychotic underling, General Paul Mireau (George Macready, in a scene-stealing performance), to capture a German redoubt called The Anthill. Mireau sanely claims it’s folly, and he will suffer high mortality rates, but when Broulard dangles promotion and public acclaim to him, Mireau takes the bait, or, in modern parlance, drinks the Kool-Aid.

We then get the first great Kubrick tracking shot of his career, Mireau strutting through the trenches, slapping shell-shocked soldiers like his real world American counterpart, George Patton would decades later, and offering pathetic homilies and bon mots. This scene is reconstructed and deconstructed not too much later when the film’s hero, Colonel Dax (Douglas) also walks the trenches, but as a prelude to mass slaughter, not dickwaving. Mireau arrives at Dax’s headquarters, and tells Dax, a criminal defense attorney in civilian life, the planned assault. Dax, who we learn in the film’s DVD commentary has his obligatory shirtless scene due to contractual obligations Douglas made, tells his superior of the unlikelihood of success in taking the Anthill. After some cajoling and bullying from Mireau, and a threat to remove him from command, Dax accepts his task and joins in the folly, at least nominally. But not before a parting shot at his superior, by paraphrasing Dr. Johnson’s claim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, when Mireau’s appeal to that, after the appeal to vanity has failed.

A scouting mission is formed, headed by a cowardly drunkard, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), whose idiocy results in the death of an underling, after the man he sends out as a scout is taken to be the enemy and Roget kills him with a grenade. The third man, Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker, playing well against type – he was Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly- as did many of the actors in the film) blames Roget for the death, and threatens to report him for his idiocy and drinking. Roget, though, threatens Paris into silence, expressing remorse over the accidental death. But, he still sees Paris as a threat to him.

The next day, after getting Roget’s report, Dax leads the charge out of the trenches and against the anthill, in a famous attack scene where the French move left to right on the screen, and never once is the enemy shown- a truly nightmare scenario. It’s a slaughter, and two of the three companies are nearly wiped out when Dax realizes the third, led by Roget, hasn’t even left the trenches. He goes back to lead them, but they say they were pinned down by enemy fire. Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men but the artillery commander refuses to fire without written confirmation of the orders. Mireau is flustered, knowing that would leave a trail of evidence against him. Dax, meanwhile, himself, gets pinned down in the trenches as the few survivors of the attack retreat, and barrel into him.

Despite all the brass knowing the insanity of the attack, Mireau orders that a hundred men be executed as ‘cowards.’ But Broulard says only three are needed, as ‘examples,’ one from each company. Roget picks Paris to silence him about his own cowardice and bungled reconnaissance. Private Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel), is chosen by lot, despite being a courageous soldier, who made the charge. The third man is Private Maurice Ferol (Carey) – a great name, who is picked because he is a ‘social undesirable.’ This leads to the great courtroom scenes, wherein Dax fulminates and stews in classic Douglas style, especially when he is refused to allow in evidence that could win the case. The scene was later the basis for a famous parody scene in The Planet Of The Apes. Worst of all is that the whole trial is done in secret, with no stenographic record of it kept. The men are found guilty.

When Dax finds out why Roget chose Paris, he makes Roget the officer in charge of the executions so that, like the generals who committed the courtroom folly, the deaths of the three men will haunt him forever, as well. After inflicting this on Roget, Dax is visited by the artillery commander who had refused Mireau’s order to fire on his own men, and tells him of Mireau’s ‘crime.’ Dax then goes to see Broulard, at a banquet. He tells him of Mireau’s actions, along with sworn statements. Broulard waffles, but the execution goes on as planned, unlike in conventional war melodramas.

We return to the condemned men. Ferol is droll and resigned, never more so than after he squashes the cockroach that Arnaud is decrying will outlive him, and saying, ‘Now you got the edge on him.’ Arnaud is enraged and tries to attack a visiting priest, whereas Paris punches Arnaud out, which ends up with him having a concussion. As the three men are led to their deaths, Ferol wails like a coward, Arnaud is tied to a post in a stretcher, and Paris refuses a blindfold from Roget, who apologizes. Paris shoots him a devastating look of disgust and derision. The execution occurs. 

The next morning, Dax is ordered to Broulard’s for breakfast, where he sees Mireau joyous over how well the executions went. Broulard then matter of factly announces that he knows that Mireau ordered artillery fire against his men and there will be a public investigation. Mireau is shocked, feels he is being scapegoated for his superior’s actions (which he is) and declares only he is blameless in the affair (which he is clearly not).

Broulard then offers Dax a promotion into Mireau’s position. He feels that this was the real reason for Dax;s defense of the men. This sets Dax off, calling his superior a degenerate. Broulard then brushes off Dax as a naïve idealist, akin to a village idiot, whereas Dax pities the old man. Leaving his superior, Dax sees his remaining men in a saloon, watching a captured German girl (Susanne Christiane Harlan, later Kubrick’s wife) forced to sing an old folk song, The Faithful Hussar, about love lost in war. The jeering and lecherous French soldiers, upon hearing the female voce warble the song, are deeply moved, and sing along.

The moment is a direct inversion of a similar scene from Casablanca- a typical Hollywood war melodrama if there ever was one, in which French soldiers sing La Marseillaise, and shows just how phony both that scene and its sentiment are, even if it is used primarily for the character of Paul Henreid to show his cojones. The film ends with Dax telling an underling to give the men a few more minutes before telling them they are being ordered back to the front.

The forthcoming DVD release from The Criterion Collection is, visually, an improvement over earlier video releases. It used to be that companies would tout what exactly had been fixed and restored, but not any longer.

Nonetheless, the images in this version are crisper than I’ve ever seen, and this is perhaps the 20th or so time I’ve watched this film in my life. The screenplay, adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and pulp writer Jim Thompson, as mentioned, is almost perfect. At 88 minutes, the black and white film also is paced well. In fact, it’s the rare film that one wishes were longer. The film’s score is credited to Gerald Fried, but that’s just a formality, as Kubrick meticulously plotted every sound in the film. The same goes for the work of cinematographer Georg Krause.

As for the DVD features? There is a bevy of interesting interviews given. The first and least is a radio interview with Kubrick, who merely mentions his wife’s role. The best is a 30 minute British television interview with Kirk Douglas, from the late 1970s, wherein Douglas demonstrates his articulateness, astuteness on the art of acting, and briefly goes into the making of Paths Of Glory.

Other interviews, of varying quality, are taped offerings with executive producer Jam Harlan, Kubrick’s wife Christiane, and the film’s producer, James B. Harris, who offers many insights about the film, including his having to fire Tim Carey for his outrageous behavior on and off set, which led to the decision to not show what happened to the three doomed men during Dax’s assault on the Anthill, for Carey was already gone when those scenes were to be shot. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, a French television report on the real life case the book and film were based on, and a surprisingly good insert essay by film scholar James Naremore, which goes against the prevailing essays most Criterion titles include. Most are mere regurges of easily identifiable points whereas Naremore’s essay introduces little known facts and critiques that are cogent.

The best feature, though, is the audio commentary provided by film critic Gary Giddins. It is scene-specific, deeply detailed about the film, yet he never lingers too long on a scene or point, and trusts the viewer to understand the things he speaks on. In short, the commentary aptly recapitulates many of the same narrative virtues the film benefits from.

On the negative side, Giddins totally misreads the scenes that play out between Dax and Broulard, and claims that Broulard was correct in interpreting Dax’s actions as gunning for Mireau’s job, but this is not so, for the very assertiveness that Giddins claims allows for Broulard’s misinterpretation is the only thing Dax has to counter the bureaucratic monolith he is up against with officiousness. Having worked for decades in corporate America, I understand this. Giddins clearly does not, likely because he’s never been in the position Dax is in. He also errs when he equates mere conventional set ups of camera angles with being melodrama. Having a closeup of the film’s leading man is, of itself, not a sign of melodrama, but, in this case, showing us the way Douglas can convey both said and unsaid emotions via his mien. Melodrama would not contain such subtleties.

In the positive is the extensive information given on the screenplay’s conception and final form, with emphasis on the lives of Thompson and Willingham, and the controversies over their respective roles. Interestingly, the DVD features also suggest that it was Kirk Douglas, not Kubrick, who insisted on the realistic, bleak end to the film, although the song episode tempers that a bit. Kubrick claimed that he was just tossing out a ‘Hollywood ending’ to induce Douglas’s performance into a less splashy performance in the film for both their benefits.

Despite its many virtues and manifest greatness, Paths Of Glory did not get even a single Academy Award nomination, and was banned from many European film festivals due to French protests. That the film was released just shortly after David Lean’s first epic, The Bridge On The River Kwai, no doubt was part of the reason, for that film- a widescreen Cinemascope blockbuster, in color, from a major studio- is also a great war film, albeit from a wholly different end of the spectrum.

Which returns me to my earlier point: that Paths Of Glory is not merely a war film nor an anti-war film. It is both, and revels in such. As French filmmaker Francois Truffaut aptly noted, all war films hold a power that makes calling them anti-war ridiculous. We can not be fully realized human beings without acknowledging that we love war and killing, and war films indulge this, even if they sometimes slip anti-war messages within them. The thrilling shots of Dax leading his men in No Man’s Land prove this.

Of course, there are always people and critics who will whiff on even the greatest works of art. Bosley Crowther, the ridiculously bad film critic for the New York Times, wrote:

We feel that Mr. Kubrick–and Mr. Douglas–have made a damaging mistake in playing it in colloquial English, with American accents and attitudes, while studiously making it look as much as possible like a document of the French Army in World War I. The illusion of reality is blown completely whenever anybody talks.

This sort of comment, by Crowther, is akin to those many bad critics make in defense of subtitling over dubbing foreign films. Anyone who is hung up on the American accents of an American-made film, wherever it is set, simply is invalidating their worth as a critic of note.

Paths Of Glory is a great film, made by a great director at the start of a career that is nonpareil in American cinema. The Criterion Collection has also done one of its best jobs, in recent years, of restoring this classic, and surrounding it with features that are worthy of the art they comment upon. War may be hell, but this release is Kubrickian heaven. If you’ve never seen the film before, or merely want to see it again, this is the release to engage.

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