Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review – Paths of Glory

May 17, 2009

Paths of Glory – U.S., 1957

Sometimes the possibility of power is all it takes to corrupt even the most noble of men. For proof of this, all one needs to do is observe General Paul Mireau’s sudden about-face in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Paths of Glory. When asked to commit 800 men to a mission that he sees as practically impossible, the taking of a heavily protected area called Ant Hill, he doggedly proclaims the request to be “out of the question.” It is then that his friend General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) plays his trump card: it seems that Gen. Mireau (George Macready) has been mentioned as a candidate for promotion, one that he has craved for some time. The general pauses a moment, and then reiterates his earlier objections, yet this time something is missing from his voice – earnestness. In his mind, the mission has already shifted from being all but impossible to being costly, but somewhat workable. Soon, the general is inspecting the troops in the trenches and asking as many of them as possible, “Ready to kill more Germans?” as if that desire were all the men needed to attain victory in the upcoming battle.

The task of leading the attack falls to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a criminal lawyer with an impeccable record. Despite his misgivings – and he has several – he assures the general that he and his men will indeed complete their mission. As the time for the attack approaches – they are attacking in broad daylight and without any air support – Dax emerges from his quarters with his war face on. His pace is quick, and his eyes stare straight ahead of him, as if fixated on the spot at which he will depart the trenches and lead his men into battle. As artillery shells land just outside of the trenches, the men flinch; Dax does not. However, as the barrage continues, Dax begins to slouch a bit, and he appears to show a hint of anger. It seemed to me, at that moment, that Dax was a man fully aware of what was about to happen, of the horrendous cost in lives that the coming battle would bring, and equally aware of what was happening just out of harm’s way, that the general who ordered the attack was somewhere safely watching and waiting for the victory that would ensure his ascendency in military rank.

As I watched Paths of Glory, I was reminded of Robert Redford’s film Lions for Lambs, in which Redford’s character laments the fact that the best men are far too often led by the weakest of leaders. Much of what we see in Paths of Glory demonstrates this. Generals with ulterior motives dish out orders that must be obeyed and then have the gull to punish the soldiers who tried their utmost to carry them out. The film shows a world in which those in leadership positions, with the exception of Dax, are too timid to be affective. Some in fact are downright cowards. To such military “leaders” are entrusted the lives of some of the bravest men that France has to offer.

I had expected much of Paths of Glory to be about the battle for Ant Hill. In truth, the battle occupies only the middle of the film. The final third of the film shows us just how far some people will go to shield themselves from blame and protect their own self-interests, and General Mireau is not the only one involved in doing so. As trials are held to punish those whom Mireau calls “cowards and scum,” we see just how far the military brass is willing to go to deflect blame and maintain their treasured and secure positions. It is both shocking and eye-opening.

There is much to like about Paths of Glory. I particularly liked the role of Cpl. Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker), a dedicated soldier whose only reward is to be offered up as a sacrificial lamb. And as always, Kirk Douglas gives an incredible performance. His walk through the trenches is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in a film. In addition, the film’s script, co-written by Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, and Kubrick himself, is tight, emotional, suspenseful, and never predictable. The film’s final scene serves to remind us of just how connected we all are, despite borders and languages sometimes driving a wedge between us.

As the film ends, the bombs continue to fall, and men are once again mobilized for battle by generals who may or may not have their best interests in mind. As a soldier, I suppose, you cannot allow yourself to think about that. You receive orders, you follow orders. However, for those of us not partaking in the battle, for those of us who watch it from afar, the film seems to be suggesting that we have a moral responsibility to make sure that what they are doing is for the greater good, not for the personal benefit of men like General Mireau. We must make sure that the path to glory is an honorable one. (on DVD)

Five stars

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