by Allan Fish
next up in the World War I commemorative series…
(USA 1957 86m) DVD1/2
Do not be afraid to ask for credit for our way of refusing is very polite…
p James B.Harris d Stanley Kubrick w Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson novel Humphrey Cobb ph Georg Krause ed Eva Kroll m Gerald Fried art Ludwig Reiber
Kirk Douglas (Col.Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl.Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen.Broulard), George Macready (Gen.Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt.Roget), Joseph Turkel (Pvt.Arnoud), Timothy Carey (Pvt.Ferol), Richard Anderson (Maj.Saint-Auban), Emile Meyer (Priest), Peter Capeli (Col.Judge), Suzanne Christian (Girl), Bert Freed, Harold Benedict,
…and do not be afraid to go over the top, because if you don’t, we’ll shoot you anyway. When people come to discuss that most arbitrary, futile and, in some respects, distasteful subject of what the worst war in memory is or was, answers vary according to age, country and creed. This will always be the case and it is perfectly understandable. To everyone brought up during or, worse still, fighting through a war, that war is the worst in history. One thinks even now of C.Aubrey Smith in The Four Feathers berating the younger generation that the Crimea was when “war was war and men were men.” He knew no better either. But in reality, with the deepest respects to the fallen of all other modern wars, when I think of war I cannot help but think of the so-called Great War. Never have more men been lost in so short a period of time for seemingly no purpose while actually taking part in military battles. And for me, Paths of Glory showed the reason for this better than any film before or since.
It shows quite simply how a group of French soldiers are asked to undertake the impossible mission of taking back the Anthill from the German defenders for seemingly no other reason than for that which George Mallory once said he’d climb Everest. Despite the inefficiency of the brass hat command, it is three normal soldiers who are chosen to be killed as an example of what happens to people who use their brains, rather than just die for no reason. Cowardice has nothing to do with it.
For anyone who mistakenly believed that this film was an attack on the French, think again. The French authorities may have banned the film, but the British high command were guilty of monumental injustices on a similar scale. Not satisfied seeing thousands butchered to get, as Edmund Blackadder once famously said, “Field Marshal Haig’s drinking cabinet a couple of inches closer to Berlin“, they thought the men needed an example to be made of anyone supposedly failing in their duty. (Like they needed an example, surrounded by the rotting corpses of their fallen comrades in the trenches around them.) And though no film can really get over the horrors of the trenches, there is a real feel of its cynical solidarity of death in this film, as well as a fair enough realism of the feel of the battles, as to make you realise what went on here. As George C.Scott’s General Turgidson said in the later Doctor Strangelove, “I don’t say we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but no more than ten to twenty million killed. Tops. That is, depending on the break.” Brass hat generals have always seen the common soldier as gun, cannon, arrow fodder, stretching back through time. In the age of mass slaughter, victories gave new meaning to the term Pyrrhic and for the first time, with the advent of the earliest moving picture correspondents, people at home could see for themselves the horrors of the front.
The way Kubrick achieves audience revulsion is revolutionary, almost adopting as detached a viewpoint as the military staff to the individual soldiers. Though his trademark dehumanisation is evident, there is also a warm humanity here, typified by the emotional final scene where the young German girl (above) is first leered over, then cried over as she sings to the French soldiers who are about to return to ‘operation certain death’. The photography and the performances of Douglas, Menjou and Macready are superb and, at the end of the film, one really comes away with a greater sense of the futility of war than a host of crappy gun-toting ‘Nam movies can never get over. Paths of Glory is the finest study of high command inefficiency ever filmed, starkly told and entirely unforgettable.