"Paths of Glory (1957)" FB470
Note: The tag at the top that sounds like an aircraft designation - FB470 - is a tag for myself based on a mini-project I’m undertaking with my viewing, which is making an effort to watch more films from before 1970 and subsequently write about them.
It’s scary just how much Stanley Kubrick was ahead of the curve. His 1957 war film “Paths of Glory”, a somewhat embarrassing first watch for me, is an incredibly lean and focused film that doesn’t meander from its point about war, and the bureaucracy of middle-management in the trenches, something that hasn’t really changed. Kubrick’s rationale for writing so much about war was that it was a situation where man is stripped down to himself as an “ignoble savage”, and that with the kind of split-second decisions made, this is where all of his stupid fallacies can be seen most clearly.
“Paths of Glory” is about honour and responsibility, or more accurately the lack of that, and how cowardice is defined in war; it’s often not the actuqal men fighting it, the grunts, but those giving the orders from a cushy bunker. In this case two apparently independent events are linked through those themes, where senior officers are responsible for not only killing their own men but also throwing them into life-threatening situations, and then when the operations in question do not come out in favour of the officers, they distract from their mistakes by putting innocent officers in the line for court martial.
Based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, the story has its origins in a real event, hence the setting of a French regiment in World War II. Despite using some French actors, Kubrick has the foresight as to not bother with accents and allows the mostly American cast to speak as they would normally, resulting in a collection of marvellous performances, not least from the leading Kirk Douglas. Perfectly paced, the film almost feels like a play without the stagey feeling, and research tells me it was originally a play in 1935, which flopped however, due to the anti-war theme. In the same vein, Kubrick’s film was withdrawn from France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and US military establishments, and in the most extreme case (Spain) it was not shown until 1986.
It’s a clear masterpiece and a truly important film, and it’s disappointing that it still has extreme relevance, especially with a certain orange-faced clown and his necessity to bang on about one thing while a more important thing is buried (the same thing often happens in the UK). Kubrick brilliantly establishes a dramatic space between the hierarchy of the military, with the soldiers in the trenches and the commanders in their lavish palaces, barking ridiculous offers with no real concept of consequence or responsibility for their actions, with only the common man to defend the dead.
“Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I'm ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.”