My attempt to go through Stanley Kubrick’s filmography continues… well not apace, certainly, but it continues. I was able to watch his fourth film, Paths of Glory, Sunday evening, after a fair amount of postponement and anticipation, and ooooh big surprise: I liked it.
After the critical, if not box office, success of The Killing, Kubrick and producer Jack Harris decided they wanted to do a war movie; Kubrick apparently read the novel by Humphrey Cobb when he was a teenager, and the two men began work. Once again Jim Thompson worked on the screenplay, a chore eventually taken over by another novelist, Calder Willingham (who would later turn in screenplays for The Graduate and Little Big Man). This was while they were under contract to MGM. After a major shake-up in the studio (in which Dory Schary and our boys got the boot), the project seemed to be in limbo, except another star with a reputation for being a maverick was interested in the script: Kirk Douglas. Douglas’ own production company, Bryna (named after his mother) helped ramrod the project through United Artists.
Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a WWI French officer commanded to do the impossible: take his regiment across No Man’s Land and capture The Anthill, a fortified German position that has repelled all comers for months. When the attack inevitably fails, three men from the regiment are picked, supposedly at random, to be tried and executed for cowardice. Dax insists on defending the men himself, only to find himself up against a wall of confustication; the outcome of the trial is never in doubt, and three men are executed by firing squad.
There is no denying that Paths of Glory is an anti-war movie, but there is also little denying it is a pro-soldier movie. The villains in this piece are not the Germans – we never see a German soldier – but the commanding officers, themselves lodged in a magnificent mansion far away from the dismal trenches populated by men they seem to hardly regard as human beings, more as chess pieces. Even then, that road isn’t an easy one to navigate. General Mireau (George MacReady), who will become our major heavy, starts out well enough. When his superior Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) asks him to take The Anthill, Mireau at first demurs, citing the impossibility of the goal, that the toll on his men would be too high. But then Broulard mentions that there may be a promotion for the man who takes The Anthill.
Mireau’s concern for his men evaporates at that point, even ordering his artillery to shell his own trenches when company B fails to leave its protection for the second wave of the assault. The artillery officer refuses, and Mireau immediately orders him to place himself under arrest. Afterwards, still stung at his loss of face and seeking to deflect blame, Mireau wants a hundred of the men executed for cowardice. Broulard manages to talk him down to the three men, later opining that the execution will be “good for morale”.
The unfeeling mechanics of the trial are made even more stark by the assault on the Anthill, lead by Dax himself. Noisy, messy and grueling, it’s well made and shot and seems to go on far longer than it actually does – and in another of those pieces of genius staging, when Dax and his company pauses after this long, tortuous push, for the first time in the sequence, the camera flicks toward their objective, the Anthill… and it still seems impossibly far away. After numerous casualties, they have still only reached the edge of the French wire.
If the court-martial scenes are an exercise in frustrating futility, the mood switches to grim naturalism in the stockade where the condemned men await the sunrise and their death. Ralph Meeker, a couple of years after Kiss Me Deadly, gets to show his range as Paris, a corporal chosen for the trial because he witnessed a drunken superior accidentally kill one of his own men during a night patrol; Timothy Carey brings his usual off-kilter performance to Ferol, picked because he is a “social undesirable”; and as Arnaud, a man chosen by lot for the trial, even though he has two decorations for bravery under fire, is another familiar face I was racking my brain to recognize – it’s Joe Turkel, a quarter-century removed from Blade Runner and The Shining.
The film falls back to seemingly impersonal and mechanical for the firing squad scene, which is another masterpiece of staging and pacing, monstrous in the dissonance between what can only be called the pomp and circumstance of the event versus its actual callousness, most typified by the treatment of Arnaud, who sustained a serious skull fracture when he assaulted a priest in their cell. Unconscious and not expected to live in any case, his stretcher is tied to the stake in the killing field, and the sergeant pinches his cheeks to try to awaken him – General Mireau wants him conscious for his execution.
Mireau will find himself under investigation for ordering the shelling of his own troops, and Boulard will offer Dax Mireau’s post. Upon finding that Boulard thinks Dax has done all this in order to be promoted to Mireau’s position, we get the patented Kirk Douglas tantrum, somewhere between a shout and a sob, as the colonel finally tells the general what he thinks of the whole affair and the general in specific. Boulard realizes that Dax is an idealist and tells the colonel he pities him “like one pities the village idiot.”
According to James Harris on the Criterion Blu-Ray, there was, at one point, a happy ending, doubtless because it was felt that maybe it would be best for the box office. When it was switched back to the original ending, with the soldiers unsaved from the firing squad, he concealed it from the suits by sending them an entire script, rather than just the changed pages (when the suits saw the completed movie, they apparently didn’t mind). The ending we do get is all the more moving for its bittersweet qualities, even more so because it is an addition by Willingham that Kubrick at first hated, then accepted as he realized how to stage it. The remaining members of the regiment are crowded into a bar, noisy, boisterous. The MC of the club hauls a… prisoner? We’re never quite sure of her status, except she is young, pretty and German, “A pearl cast adrift on the tides of war.” She is, in fact, the only German we see in the picture. Urged on by the host, she sings a song, and the jeers and catcalls of the regiment slowly die down as they listen to her, singing in German. Quietly, the men, sit, rapt. One by one, they begin to hum along with the tune, since they don’t know the words. A few brush tears from their eyes. I do the same.
Outside the club, Dax stands, listening. His sergeant arrives with the news that regiment had been ordered back to the front, at once, an order no doubt prompted by his earlier tantrum. Dax tells the sergeant to let the men have a few more minutes, then walks grimly to his office.
It is quite a remarkable picture, and once again a resounding critical success, if not a financial one. It was banned from several European countries for quite some time, which verified United Artist’s worries about putting up the money for it. But many people point to this as their favorite Kubrick movie, or their favorite anti-war movie. It’s not quite flawless, but it is damned good, and the fact that it still resonates over a half-century later certainly confirms its status as a Great Film.
It also meant that when Kirk Douglas was having problems with Anthony Mann on the set of Spartacus, he would fire the director and ask for Kubrick to replace him. We’ll see how good an idea that was when I somehow manage to carve three hours out of my schedule to watch it next.