Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Paths of Glory (1957)

Fig 1 - Paths of Glory Poster
I must preface this review with the fact that I am in no sense a lover of 'war films', nor the genre of straight-up 'action' for that matter. I suppose they've always been kind of a foreign language to me, steeped in a sense of nationalism that I find all too alien. It's a complete generalisation, I realise, but I've always found myself avoiding them.

However, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb) took me completely by surprise. I'd never even heard of this film, so going in I had little expectation other than the fact I'd enjoyed numerous works by Kubrick in the past. But what proceeded may have been the shortest hour and a half of my entire week. I was utterly captivated by the drama of this World War I story, which incidentally was banned in several countries for differing periods of time due to its portrayal of the French army. However, Kubrick was never exactly adverse to controversy, i.e. A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, etc. And to me, this truly cements what a gutsy vision he had for the film.

We start with a conversation between General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Paul Mireau (George Macready), in which Broulard suggests that Mireau order his men to seize a well-defended German position across no-mans land known as the 'Anthill'. It is made clear that over half the men involved will be sacrificing themselves in order to achieve this, but without hesitation Mireau makes the order to his second in command, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Once the plan is put into action, however, the majority of soldiers involved retreat back into the trenches in the knowledge that it would be suicide to do so. Furious at this, Mireau decides to court martial a handful of soldiers as a consequence of their 'cowardace' and from here, it is Colonel Dax's duty to defend the honor of the three men in court, even if it means going against the judgement of his superiors.

Fig 2 - Paths of Glory - Firing squad
Even my own description of this film doesn't entirely enthrall me, yet everything about it is executed with perfection. We get a lot of extended 'Kubrick-ian' takes, in which the actors explore the space around them in a very organic way as they digest and dwell on information. The dialogue is also notably realistic and never sinks to expository levels, more-so exhibiting the humanity of these otherwise completely ordinary men. And for the most part, the formalities were put by the way-side. It is completely evident how afraid and tired these soldiers have grown, which is only exacerbated by the events of its third act. One small scene shows us a quiet yet erratic conversation between two soldiers in their bunks discussing what might be 'the best way to go' and, for me it really highlighted the situation from the insight of the men involved.

George Macready as Mireau gave a particularly convincing performance as the proud and ignorant French General. A scene in which Mireau is touring the trenches to 'motivate' his men was quickly telling of his character, who seemed utterly blind to the atmosphere on the front line. His default opener of "Ready to kill more Germans?" felt entirely blunt and inappropriate, which was only made more inconceivable by his complete disregard for the 'myth' of shellshock. An all-round loathsome character overall.

The film should also be applauded for its ability to take risks, narratively speaking, as a solution to the third act was somewhat hinted at but never actually carried out, perhaps as an allegory for the hopeless situation in which these men had initially signed themselves up for. And in the end, I was completely mesmerized by what I'd seen, and I look forward to the menagerie of Kubrick I have yet to witness.



Fig. 1 Paths of Glory Poster (1957) From: Paths of Glory - Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Fig. 2 Paths of Glory Screenshot (1957) From: Paths of Glory - Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

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