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100 Favorite Movies: #24 Paths of Glory

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham (Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb)

Why It’s Good: While Stanley Kubrick’s later films, such as 2001 and Barry Lyndon benefited from a rather open structure that allowed them to flourish in full contemplative detail, his earlier works show a sense of economy that is both refreshing and allows for a tighter narrative focus. You can argue either way as to whether a movie should be long or short, but so long as the narrative is given sufficient amount of space to grow and deliver its dramatic intent, then it does not matter either way. What this does mean for Paths of Glory is just how much Kubrick was able focus his thematic delivery through his direction, using pacing as a means to enhance the natural gait at which such things move along. Let’s face it, war is hectic, barely leaving one time to assimilate orders, let alone think clearly. The same can be said of the justice system, especially one designed to serve its own means such as it is here, which must strain down masses of details in order to come up with a coherent thought. Paths of Glory is a strange marriage of the legal and war movie, but in keeping us on our toes at all times, Kubrick allows us to create a simulacra of ourselves acting out the drama on screen, promoting our own attempts to quickly sort through all the different powers at play and barring that, have a simple, but powerful emotional reaction. While Kubrick may not have quite come into his own in terms of stunning visual directing by this point (it was only his second film), his perfectionist sense shines through, with even the characters seeming to occupy different planes of speed, making the continual confusion subjected upon certain members of the characters feel all the more powerful.

Set during World War I, the French Army is engaging in trench warfare with the Germans on a massive scale. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) is intent on taking a German position known as the Anthill, asking his subordinate, General Mireau (George Macready) to do so. Mireau initially scoffs at the idea, as it would cost the lives of many of the soldiers in his division to do so, but when the idea of a promotion is mentioned, Mireau jumps into action. Mireau attempts to inspire his troops in the trenches, but leaves the details of the attack to Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) who brings up his own protests about the odds of success. A scouting mission is sent, where Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) ends up blowing up the scout with a grenade because he is drunk. Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) ends up finding the body and threatens to report the Lieutenant, but Roget is able to cover himself by falsifying reports. The attack soon gets under way and ends up a disaster, with a whole company refusing to leave the trenches. Enraged, Mireau orders the artillery to fire upon them in order to scare them out of the trenches, though the artillery commander refuses without written orders. With the battle ending in disaster, Mireau decides to court martial the men, narrowing the number down to three, choosing Paris at Roget’s suggestion, Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) and Pvt. Arnaud (Joe Turkel), who despite commendations for bravery, was chosen at random. The three face the death penalty in a court obviously hostile to them and it is up to Col. Dax to defend them.

Rather than pick on the rather obvious anti-war themes of the film, I think it might be more prudent to point to the idea of the stratification of class found in the film. While not quite the stirring essay on the subject that Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is, one can immediately tell the division of the officers and the soldiers. We often see the officers in offices, dining rooms and if battle is on, far behind the lines in tents issuing orders. They are clean, austere, giving off a sense of old world dignity, a direct contrast to the muddiness and poverty we see the front line soldiers in. Theirs is the job to take for the officers and die is necessary. But in historical terms, World War I presented one of the last old world issuance of aristocracy in combat, with the refined breeding the General’s betraying their cultured upbringing. In seeing this clear division of merit and rank, the narrative focuses upon the ways in which injustice is caused by a disconnect between the harsh realities and those issuing the orders, the aristocratic generals seemingly unconcerned with anything outside of status and honor. There’s is a civilization in decline, figures born into power and thus incapable of wileding it outside of their normal purview which does not include thoughts of strategic value. It is easy to see the contrast between these two systems of values, but the film is careful not to allow them to reconcile, further giving the generals the power to not only put his men in a situation where they can die, but the power of life and death itself. Only Col. Dax serves as our bridge between the out of touch power of the elite and the harrowing tragedy of the common.

Paths of Glory is an arresting film in many respects, with nary a second allowed to breathe in all the sharp details coming at you. At times watching it, I can feel my blood boil at what I’m seeing, knowing that such things were entirely possible at the time and yet, I can also feel that tinge of sadness underneath it all, the mournful lament of lives lost for nothing.

Key Scene: If you’ve been keeping up with this list at all you know of my proclivity to choose the ending of films for my key scenes. And why not? They’re usually the point in the movie where we’re left with our lasting impression of the film, the sort of period that ends the sentence. So when I say that Paths of Glory has the greatest ending to a film I’ve ever seen (only Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low comes close) please know that I am not trying to be hyperbolic. The real power of this scene comes from the fact that it so perfectly mirrors in film action what the audience themselves will feel upon seeing it, this kind of stark reality of the human condition brought about into a single voice penetrating from the darkness. It is one of the few points in a movie I can remember where I wanted to tear up to release some of the emotion I was feeling. You can certainly look up what happens if you like, but watch the film instead please and really revel in its majesty.

Where You Can Watch It: For those of you surviving off loose pocket change but still nursing a movie addiction, there is a rather cheap stripped down version of the film available. But Mr. Moneybags’ like myself will be getting the nice restored Criterion Collection cut in either Blu-Ray or DVD. As with all Criterion Collection DVDs, I advise keeping an eye out for sales at Barnes and/or Noble. Streaming:

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