Monday, August 9, 2010

Paths of Glory

I have placed this early Kubrick anti-war statement on my top ten list both for its originality, great acting, compelling story line, plot twists, and surprisingly beautiful and inspired ending. This one is a heart-breaker account of a moment in history that must have repeated itself endlessly in that horrific bloodfest called the trenches of World War I. To some extent Kubrick returned to the theme in various ways with Full Metal Jacket. Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax is perfect here, demonstrating the challenge of maintaining honor within a system that has turned values on its head. The story illumines a crisis point in the life and career of Colonel Dax, who has lived by the watchword of Duty with a capital D throughout his career while holding fast to his ideals as regards faithfulness to his men. The army's absurd effort to capture "the Anthill" results in a tear in the fabric of his idealism. The ugliness he sees is an eye opener for both Dax and the audience, who sees the political machinations behind the scenes with tragic clarity.

Colonel Dax, identifying with his men, is an inspiration in contrast to an empty culture of power and prestige cut loose from its ethical moorings.

The following is a review from which gives a fairly good summation of the film.

"Let the men have a few minutes more", 15 October 2006
Author: nora_nettlerash from Ruritania

Although Kubrick's films are marked by their massive variation of genre and tone, one theme that crops up again and again is a strong anti-war sentiment, and this was never stated more strongly than in Paths of Glory. A relatively early Kubrick picture and, despite coming before what is considered his classic period, it is one of his best.

In contrast to his previous picture,
The Killing, a definite Kubrick style is beginning to emerge now. One notable example is the scene in which General Mireau tours the trenches, walking towards the audience with the camera retreating away from him. This technique would be repeated years later in Kubrick's other war film, Full Metal Jacket. There is also something about the arrangement of objects in the frame, as well the tracking and dollying which hints towards his more familiar later style. His recurring chess motif appears as well, albeit subtly. At the court martial the floor is chequered, and the soldiers on trial are seated with guards standing behind them as if they are pawns about to be sacrificed.

The light and contrast in this picture is put to good effect. The palatial officers' headquarters is light and airy with few shadows. The trenches are gloomy and cramped. Kubrick was becoming a real master at contrasting locations and getting the look of a place just right.

The use of music in Paths of Glory is bold and brilliant. The pre-recorded score is almost entirely percussive – all rhythmic sounds with no melody. A weird kettle drum track is used to help build tension in the night patrol scene, while in the climactic scene the funeral march drumming instills a sense of dread, further heightened by having the shots edited in time to the beat. In the emotional final scene we get the complete opposite – a beautiful vocal melody. This has all the more impact after hearing nothing but militaristic drums for the rest of the film.

The casting is absolutely flawless. While there are no big names apart from leading man Kirk Douglas and the now elderly Adolphe Menjou, there isn't a single weak performance. The despair and resentment of the condemned soldiers feels so absolutely real. In contrast the smugness and fake sympathy of the upper class officers is brilliantly portrayed.

Throughout his career Kubrick never seemed to be particularly keen on blatantly emotional moments.
Paths of Glory is the exception. The later scenes are incredibly poignant and moving, and the final moments in the soldier's bar are what makes it a masterpiece more than anything else – the icing on the cake

No question this film foreshadows techniques which Kubrick would use again in future films. The kettle drums in the night patrol scene, especially the slowed pace, is re-created to eerie tension-building effect in the second duel scene in Barry Lyndon.

I am especially awed at how deftly Kubrick is able to paint so many characters with such vividness and depth in such a short amount of time. From the generals to the men in the trenches, we get clear snapshots of their motivations and basic drives. From acting to story line to cinematography... a great film.

With regard to the central action, the effort to take the Ant Hill (itself a hilariously symbolic objective), I am reminded of a story from General Schwartzkopf's autobiography when he writes about the surprise assault on Granada. According to Schwartzkopf, they achieved their objective swiftly and without loss of life, an incredible achievement in any case scenario involving guns and soldiers. But then, a phone call came from Washington, and he was given further instructions. The mini-war was being run from afar, without appreciation for the real situation. Two helicopters and more than two dozen men were lost, marring an otherwise remarkable accomplishment. When asked to lead Desert Storm years later, he agreed to do it only if he were in charge, and not people in Washington. The PR aims of higher ups are often out of touch with the realities on the front. Perhaps this is a problem in any situation where there are excessive layers of bureaucracy.

Trivia: The German woman singing in the final scene went on to become Kubrick's wife.

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