Friday, May 22, 2015

Paths of Glory (1957)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers:  Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Him Thompson
Cast:       Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou

When French soldiers in World War One refuse to continue with an impossible attack, their superior officers decide to make an example of them. They choose three soldiers to be court martialed and subsequently killed but their commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), decides to defend them against the charge of cowardice in the court-martial. Film is an adaptation of novel with the same name by Humphrey Cobb.

I have been listening to Dan Carlin's podcasts on first world war lately and that acted as a trigger for revisiting this early classic from Stanley Kubrick. There are six episodes in total done by Carlin and they amount to around twenty four hours of engrossing account of the war. I am now onto the fourth episode and chronologically speaking Gallipoli battle is over. What makes Carlin's podcasts very interesting is the same reason that makes Stanley Kubrick's film great. Both of them take time to give a humane account of the war dealing with how it must have felt for the people involved in the trenches. 

Many other sources would have tried to depict something grand about some battle but in this film, the politicking superior officers orders the company to attack and hold a strategic position, which was an impossible task for them. While Col. Dax charges forward with men from his company, another group from the same company does it halfheartedly and then falls back into their trenches. The General goes batshit-crazy and demands 100 men to be shot which the colonel and the general's superior negotiate down to 3. Among the officers in the film, only Col. Dax is shown in a positive light, while almost all others are portrayed as careerists. Trench warfare was something that developed during the first world war and it made the entire Western Front a stagnant one with the front running for about 500 miles from Belgian coast to Switzerland. These soldiers were subjected to unthinkable terror with constant shelling living in the company of dead and wounded. The term shell-shocked was coined during the war but it was recognized as a term for cowardice in stead of the term PTSD that we are familiar with now. Dan Carlin describes that some of the people who were executed for 'cowardice' were convinced that they were doing an act of courage by setting themselves as an example for other troop members and in effect they were told  that they should be proud of dying for France. This aspect is not explored in the film but would have been interesting if Kubrick had pursued that line.

It is a film that is quite underrated when it comes to Kubrick films. He had always tried to convey his anti-war sentiment through his films and this one is the most scathing out of the three, with Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket being the other two, with him not using humor for it. Film was not exactly banned in France but since it was not submitted to French censors due to pressure from the government, it was released there only in 1975. Even Germany postponed the release of the film for two years so as not to strain its relationship with France. Out of all the films of Stanley Kubrick leading up to Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory is my favorite. Film is also technically excellent with some great tracking shots and foreboding background score. The German singer who is entertaining the troops during the last scene was Christiane Harlan, who went on to marry Stanley Kubrick and become his partner till death.

Rating: 5/5