Monthly Film Bulletin - Aug 84 - vol 51 no 607 - by Richard Combs
Paths of Glory
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cert-A. dist-BFI. p.c-Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation. A Bryna Productions presentation. For United Artists. p-James B. Harris. p. managers-(U.S.A.) John Pommer, (West Germany) George von Block. unit manager-Helmut Ringelman. asst. d-H. Stumpf, D. Sensburg, F. Spieker. sc-Stanley Kubrick, Calder Wihingham, Jim Thompson. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb. ph-George Krause. camera op-Hannes Staudinger. ed-Eva Kroll. asst. ed-Helene Fischer. a.d-Ludwig Reiber. sp. effects-Erwin Lange. rn/m.d-Gerald Fried, cost. design- Ilse Dubois. make-up-Arthur Schramm. sd-Martin Muller. military adviser-Baron von Waldenfels. l.p-Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Corporal Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (General Georges Broulard), George Macready (General Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lieutenant Roget), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joseph Turkel (Private Pierre Arnaud), Susanne Christian (German Girl), Jerry Hausner (Tavern Owner), Peter Capell (Col onel Judge), Emile Meyer (Priest), Bert Freed (Sergeant Boulanger), Ken Dibbs (Private Lejeune), Timothy Carey (Private Maurice Ferol), John Stein (Captain Rousseau), Harold Benedict (Captain Nichols), Fred Bell. 3,130 ft. 87 mins. (16 mm.).
France, 1916. At a French army command post, General Broulard arrives to inform General Mireau that headquarters insists on making a breakthrough with an attack on a heavily fortified German position known as "the Ant Hill". Ordered to carry out the assault within two days, Mireau protests that it would be a suicidal impossibility; Broulard's hints of a promotion, however, soon bring him round. On a morale-boosting tour of the front line, Mireau informs his field commander, Colonel Dax, of the plan, and bridles at the latter's scepticism. The night before the attack, the unstable Lieutenant Roget leads a reconnaissance patrol, kills one of his own men, Lejeune, in a panic, and is threatened with exposure by Corporal Paris. The assault on the Ant Hill itself, led by Dax, is a disaster; the second wave of troops is unable even to leave the trenches, and a furious Mireau orders his own artillery to fire on the men (an order disobeyed by his artillery officer, Rousseau). Afterwards, Mireau insists on having a hundred men shot for cowardice as an example. Broulard persuades him to make it one man from each of the three companies involved, and Dax (a lawyer in peacetime) is appointed to defend them at the court martial. Three men are picked: Private Arnaud by lot; Private Ferol as a "social undesirable"; and Corporal Paris by the vindictive Roget. Prevented from defending them in the usual way (since the attack was an acknowledged failure, their conviction is a foregone conclusion), Dax grasps at a straw when Rousseau tells him of Mireau's order to the artillery. Dax informs Broulard, hoping to blackmail him into quashing the case. The execution, however, goes ahead (with Arnaud, injured in a drunken fight with Paris, on a stretcher). Broulard then informs Mireau that Rousseau's revelations will necessitate an enquiry; the shattered Mireau leaves, and Dax is offered his command. Rounding on Broulard in disgust, Dax returns to his troops, whom he observes being entertained in a tavern where a frightened German girl is forced to sing, first provoking their amusement and derision, then their tearful sympathy.
What, perhaps, has always made it so tempting to discuss Killer's Kiss and The Killing in terms of film noir is that their characters so clearly inhabit nightmare worlds-a nightmare summed up in the noir trademark of chiaroscuro lighting and balefully 'contained' compositions. But their nightmare might actually be more a matter of organisation-not the Organisation, but the diverging, crisscrossing, paralleling and reversing movements of Kubrick's narrative. Noir may be the cinema's most concrete, recognisable stylistic figure for the terrors of loss of identity, for protagonists' 'shadow' selves; but Kubrick may arrive at the same end by different means. Within the toils of his narrative, his characters are naturalistic figments of city life (Killer's Kiss) or genre stereotypes locked into their separate corners (The Killing). Where this is leading, out-side of strictly genre cinema is the ident-ity conundrums of self-conscious fiction (Lolita). What it passes through, fascinatingly, is Paths of Glory, where organisational nightmare finds its objective correlative in the toils of the military mind, and Kubrick, correspondingly promoted from the tawdry realm of his previous two films to Serious Subject Matter, achieves his first 'prestige' success.
That objective correlative allows, as it were, both a consolidation and a relaxation. It freezes the subject of the film in a simple, strong image of man's dehumanisation by war, and it allows Kubrick to stop tying his plots in knots in order to make something exceptional out of unexceptional material. Here madness, death, non-being have, if not a human face, at least a recognisable institutional one: they are not the threat of being trapped in the endless maze of a genre plot (though Kubrick found a different way of objectifying that situation in The Shining). Paths of Glory, to begin with, is one of the most simply told 'serious' movies in existence; as storytelling it is worlds apart from Killer's Kiss and The Killing. This is because story has also found its objective correlative in the harsh military formulation that demands a ritual sacrifice to explain and expiate a blunder; there is a perverse logicality to the courtroom trap that is laid for Colonel Dax (he cannot argue the innocence of his men, since the trial is predicated on their guilt), and this imparts an external logicality to the narrative. (When he is just telling stories, Kubrick is one of the least logical directors in existence.) And the harshness in turn becomes a matter of style. The film cuts so bluntly from the officers scheming in their chateau to the troops suffering in their trenches that it is hard even to complain of metaphorical banality. Paths of Glory has an agit-prop directness.
If this stark linear quality distinguishes it from the previous two films, however, there remains a basic sameness of design. Kubrick's narrative method is still his meaning; plot and character still coalesce in a quite concrete image of the world they inhabit. In Killer's Kiss and The Killing this was strictly a generic world, which required only that the narrative wheels keep turning (however aimlessly). Paths of Glory launches itself into a different 'field', that of history, of mass warfare, of Byzantine army politics - however it is defined (and a certain ambiguity here is not excluded by the agit-prop quality), the film's subject is unambiguously visualised in its main setting, the baroque chateau converted to an army command post, its encrustations (of history, of military malice) relieving the plot, as it were, of its rococo responsibilities. Because the decor becomes the story, the actual story is not just simply told, but barely told. There are certain leaps in plot continuity-the actual choosing of the three men to be put on trial; the fact that a verdict is never given, the film simply cutting from the end of the trial to the rehearsing of the firing squad-which pass by almost unnoticed. In part, they can be put down to the anti-military irony (the trial is a foregone conclusion), or to Kubrick's narrative/philosophical determinism. But it can also be said that plot here does tend to disappear into the woodwork.
Given a narrative context that is so pellucidly simple, characters are also defined in a rather detached way - as manifestations of decor again, perhaps, but also of something like camera movement. Characters are imprisoned, parodied, paired off and squared away by plot in Killer's Kiss and The Killing; in the broader medium of history in Paths of Glory, they are subject to stranger gravitational forces. The prime examples are the generals, Broulard and Mireau, lookalikes in uniform, two ruthless careerists who toy with one another and lead one another on in the guise of concern for their troops or the war effort. In their discussion of the taking of the Ant Hill, the film's first scene, a series of brief tracks follows each man as he paces the marble floor, with each pursuing a divergent path that will bring them to the same end. Broulard proves to spin the more effective web because he is the more clear-sightedly cynical; Mireau in the end becomes a zealot of self-deception. Colonel Dax is the liberal-humanitarian shuttlecock passing between them; he has no double but is himself 'doubled', negotiating his superiors' ambitions first as a commander on the battlefield then as a lawyer (his civilian profession) in the courtroom.
Dax, as officer and battlefield soldier, is also a hero of two worlds, the chateau and the trenches. In fact, as 'hero', his function is to serve as the meeting point of two perspectives - the objective vista of history (or military realpolitik) and the subjective confusion and terror of trench warfare. (In this he is the precursor, somewhat more 'positive', more sympathetically energised, of Barry Lyndon, picaresque enigma and eighteenth-century history in the making.) Again, camera movement is the key: when Mireau inspects the troops in an early scene, the camera tracks back before him down the interminable trench; when Dax tours the line on the morning of the Ant Hill assault, the same objective track is intercut with one from his point of view as he passes through the ranks. This interplay reaches its apotheosis with the execution of the three chosen victims. Kubrick films the ritual in extended detail - the parading of the troops and the long walk of the condemned men (including one semi-conscious on a stretcher) to the stakes where they will be tied and shot. The inchoate anguish of one, Private Ferol, weeping on the arm of a priest and asking why he should have to die rather than one of the other soldiers, is also an 'objective' truth (he is there as an arbitrary object lesson). The tracking shots from the point of view of the victims have a particular intensity and 'evolution' as they pass in front of a hierarchy of observers: from the assembled troops to the press corps to Dax and the generals. Kubrick's extended tracking shots have usually been put down to the influence of Ophuls (whose last film, Lola Montes, was made at the Bavaria studios where Paths of Glory was shot). But the articulation of point of view through tracking - an emotional montage - is closer to Hitchcock.
And Paths of Glory, which works so hard to concretise its plot as a sense of history, of institutionalised inhumanity, also has its anguished emotional underside, a stark subjectivity. Its principle of montage, of emotional dialectics, emerges through the game of numbers played by the generals (tabulating the statistics of probable casualties before the battle; bargaining over the number of men who should be shot as an example afterwards) and the vivid awareness of mortality and eternity of the three men waiting to be shot. In the darkened bunker where they are imprisoned - rather than the trenches, this is the real underworld of the generals' chateau, with lighting again in a film noir key though the sense of place is more cosmic - Corporal Paris looks at a cockroach and muses that by this time tomorrow it will be closer to his wife than he is. Whereupon Private Ferol's hand comes down with a slap: "Now you got the edge on him". In terms of performance, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joseph Turkel are more the 'life' of the film than Kirk Douglas who, as humanity's spokesman, is as historicised, institutionalised, as the generals. Dax's ambiguous role as the humane officer who must preside over the destruction of his men is crystallised in a final opposition and evolution of perspective. Watching his troops dissolve in fellow feeling for a terrified German girl (the only 'enemy' visible in the film), his expression inscrutably masking the 'universality' of the scene, Dax orders his sergeant, "Give the men a few minutes more ".
Copyright - The British Film Institute