Sunday, August 03, 2008

70. US film director Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957): Rich in content and relevance

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

--Thomas Gray's poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard

Here’s a significant black and white film from the master director Stanley Kubrick that only a small section of his fans find interesting enough to discuss. Made half a century ago Paths of Glory is a movie that film goers might find relevant even to this day. It was not a runaway box office success. It’s an anti-war film that has a political relevance for any country that pushes its foot soldiers to fight suicidal battles for the glory of politicians and generals. And the most surprising element of the film is that the film loosely describes events that actually transpired in France. Consequently this 1957 film was not shown in France until 1975, and in Spain until 1986.

Set in Europe during the First World War, the movie is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. After the book made an impact on film director Stanley Kubrick, the film rights of the book was purchased by Kubrick and his friends for a modest sum of $10,000. Cobb’s novel describes a historical event that took place because some French generals decided to derive glory for themselves during the war by pushing soldiers in the trenches to attempt a suicidal attack on an enemy position. Once the decision is taken by the generals, the orders are passed down the pecking order, from general to colonel, from colonel to major, from major to corporal. The suicidal strike does take place, some die, and many fall back under the fire from enemy lines. A general, even under these circumstances, is only thinking of cornering glory in the pages of history and urges soldiers under him to fire on their own positions, despite protests from his officers. The attack is a fiasco and the angry general forces his officers to provide names of three soldiers who did not advance in the battle so that they would face court martial and death, if found guilty.

The film delves into how three unfortunate soldiers were picked by their superiors to face the military court and how they did not get a fair trial and are shot by a firing squad.

That’s only the framework of the story that Kubrick used to build a film that asks inconvenient questions of the viewer. Kubrick and Cobb underline the difference between the generals who are waltzing with their spouses while the poor foot soldier is worried if he will ever see his wife again. Those in power enjoy, while the poor are pawns caught in the games the powerful play to bring glory to themselves.

Kubrick’s taut screenplay shows interaction between a general and the foot soldiers in the trenches. Three of the soldiers the general chooses to speak to are the very same individuals who are made the scapegoats at the military court and shot to death for no fault of theirs. Are all of us who do not enjoy economic freedom, slaves to a system that is not fair and just? The content of this film somehow anticipates Kubrick's and Kirk Douglas' next project, Spartacus, a film that was not planned at the time Paths of Glory was being made.

The film has shades of existential colors. One of the condemned men compares his life and the life of an insect: “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.”

At several points in the film, the screenplay underlines the reality that a junior ranking officer can never blow the whistle on a senior officer’s misdeeds and get away with it. The ending of the film that Kubrick was toying with was a happy one—but the lead actor Kirk Douglas prevailed and made the ending a philosophical and a tragic one. This is perhaps one of the few examples in cinema history when an actor contributed so positively to a film. The film with a happy ending could have made more money but wouldn’t have been comparable in merit and strength as this one.

The viewers today can approach the film as an intelligent anti-war film in the league of Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line. Yet, remove the element of war and what happens in Paths of Glory could happen in an office, in a university, in politics, or on the playing field.

If we study the film closely the film it is basically a story of men. But the men are always thinking about women. And a woman’s (a German, a representative of the army they were fighting) song in a dehumanizing situation transforms the leering soldiers into men recalling their wives, mothers and daughters. The dehumanizing situation of the woman is not far removed from those of the three innocent soldiers killed by a firing squad. The lady who sang the song became Mrs. Kubrick.

Philosophically the film asks the viewer whether all the various paths of glory in life lead to the grave. And as the Thomas Gray poem that provided the title of the book suggests: death is a great equalizer. The tragic twist at end of the movie underlines this dark facet of life

Many critics have praised the performances in this film. Ralph Meeker and Timothy Carey as two of the condemned men and the fascinating actor Adolph Menjou and George Macready as the Generals provided sterling performances. (Macready’s performance in Tora! Tora! Tora! was probably a notch better) Kirk Douglas had a role that any good actor could have taken advantage of—my guess is that had Richard Burton been finally cast in the role, as Kubrick initially planned, the film would have been richer. But then if Douglas was not there, we might have lost the tragic end of the film. (Douglas’ finest acting credentials surfaced in my opinion in the little praised 1969 film of Elia Kazan called The Arrangement.)

Paths of Glory is a film that never won an Oscar or a major film festival award. Yet, it marked the beginning of a series of great films by Kubrick. To Kirk Douglas’ credit, he is quoted as saying way back in 1969: “There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now” How true!


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Humphrey Cobb wrote the novel not a Henry ....

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks. I have now corrected the error.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

I really regret that I was not aware of the fact that you had already written the review for Paths of Glory, for it would have offered me a much deeper insight into the movie as always is the case with your reviews. After having read your review, I feel enlightened about so many things pertaining to the movie. It's really pleasing to know that it was Douglas who had convinced Kubrick to go with a more realistic ending. Also, it's quite interesting the way you compared the movie's plot (minus the backdrop of war) to any quotidian situation in life. In today's situation when moral corruption is omnipresent, it's quite apt to think on those lines.

MP said...

Very good review! I think you are spot on for the film and its impact. At the time Kubrick wasn't taken that seriously at all. I remember reading François Truffaut saying that Kubrick had to find his voice.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks, Michael.