“the roll of the drums... the click of the rifle-bolts... the last cigarette...”
Stanley Kubrick directed great movies. Among the fine films he made are three excellent antiwar movies: Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. First of these, perhaps Paths of Glory states its antiwar themes most powerfully. Like the later Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory was made in glorious black and white. Color technology had become affordable by 1957, especially for a “star vehicle,” but black and white sets the historical mood of World War One and occasionally gives a newsreel feel to scenes in the film. The story may seem outlandish to some. On the other hand, I claim it possesses a familiarity many people will see once identified. What makes the film particularly radical is the environment for the story with the exposure of the “usual suspects” given by Kubrick’s (and author Cobb’s) perceptive eye.
The story begins with Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) visiting Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready) at the castle which he has commandeered for his divisional headquarters. As Gen. Broulard arrives, narration (supplied by Peter Capell who later also plays a court judge) gives historical background. Action in the war (WWI) has stabilized with little changing after the first months. Heavily fortified trenches define the front lines. Gen. Mireau’s chief of staff Maj. Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson) announces Gen. Broulard’s arrival. As Gen. Broulard greets Gen. Mireau, he compliments him on how he has decorated the palatial setting in which they meet.
Gen. Broulard gets quickly to the point of his visit: a new offensive. He identifies taking “The Anthill” -- a fortified German position in Gen. Mireau’s sector -- as the key to success for the entire offensive. He relays his orders to take the Anthill in a few days. At first Gen. Mireau responds that the order “comes pretty close to being ridiculous.” Gen. Broulard seems to think differently, but when Mireau demurs he changes the subject to the supposedly unrelated possibility of Mireau’s promotion to an Army Corps commander and the addition of another star to his rank. With the added incentive, after some clichés about dedication to the men under his command, Mireau now seems to believe that what was before impossible, can be accomplished by his division of soldiers.
The scene changes from the palatial setting of the divisional headquarters to the front lines and its trenches, with a view through “no man’s land” of the seemingly impregnable Anthill. General Mireau and Maj. Saint-Auban “tour” the trenches on their way to meet with a regimental commander. On their tour they meet Pvt. Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey), Cpl. Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and his superior officer Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) as well as Pvt. Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel) with Sgt. Boulanger (Bert Freed) and their shell shocked comrade (Fred Bell). Eventually, after we get several glimpses of Gen. Mireau’s “character,” those touring arrive at the sandbag walled quarters of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Events in the trenches while merely observing the Anthill accentuate the difficulty of the mission to take it. When Gen. Mireau passes the command to take the Anthill to Col. Dax and his regiment he attempts to use “patriotism” to inspire acceptance. This fails, but the General “succeeds” by threatening to relieve Col. Dax of his command.
That much of the story introduces all the major characters. It also gives background to the military mission and perhaps more importantly to the nature of the people and system of managerial bureaucracy which controls events. Of course, the mission to take the Anthill fails. It never had any real chance of success. However, this film does not stop there, merely indicting the French army of WWI or even the French specifically, although for many years it was banned in France. To anyone who has ever worked within a bureaucracy (perhaps the majority of Westerners) this movie gives a great demonstration of the five phases of any project: “Enthusiasm, trouble, search for a scapegoat, punishment of the innocent, and praise and reward for all non-participants.”
Stanley Kubrick directs masterfully. He also participated in writing the screenplay adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name. Kirk Douglas leads the outstanding cast as Colonel Dax, but all the character portrayals are excellent, especially those of the more despicable officers. Menjou, Macready, Anderson and Morris succeed in showing how bureaucracy most often undermines what little integrity remains within the characters of its human cogs. However, its attacks on the State and its favorite work: war, make this film most exceptional. Although all bureaucracies work to undermine personal integrity, a military bureaucracy works in an inherently malevolent industry: death and destruction. This movie makes one of the most effective and powerful statements against war ever put to film. Paths of Glory succeeds in giving great insights into bureaucracy, the State and especially its favorite pastime: war.
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