Tuesday, December 13, 2016
CANON OF FILM: "PATHS OF GLORY"
PATHS OF GLORY (1957)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson based on the Novel by Humphrey Cobb
Of Stanley Kubrick’s thirteen feature films, he made two war movies; one that’s exceptionally popular, and one that a masterpiece. The popular one is “Full Metal Jacket”; the one most people haven’t heard of is “Paths of Glory”. It’s one of his earliest films, and yet it includes some of the most startling battle sequences ever seen depicting World War I, especially at that time. It’s also is the first film that clearly shows how Kubrick completely detaches himself from his films and subjects, and finds a way to present the absurdity of war realistically. At times, parts of this film almost seem like leftover pieces of “Dr. Strangelove,” but it’s based on an actual incident where generals in the French Army put soldiers on trial for cowardice after they gave suicidal orders to capture a hill. Most of the soldiers barely get out of the trenches, and most of them didn’t live if they did, but three soldiers are then chosen to go on trial for cowardice. Lt. Dax, (Kirk Douglas) one of the Colonels who happens to be the best civilian lawyer in France defends them. He also commanded one of the troops that barely got to their own wire. The dolly track Kubrick uses in the trenches give us an unusual great understanding of what it was to fight and live in those trenches, a sense of how long these trenches were and how such a stalemate of immobility defined that war. When discussing Kubrick, the most common theme that's talked about is Duality of Man, how human nature has two conflicting sides, usually involving good and evil, usually one not realizing the other exists (or whether one’s being good or evil). I often joke that nobody should do duality in story unless their name is Kubrick (You’re usually supposed/taught to write in three). Here is a film about a good man trying to win in an evil system, that’s run by evil men. Some more evil, others a little less evil, all except him doing what they think is in their own best interests. Probably the most shocking scene I remember from the movie, isn't the hanging at the end, but after the trial when Lt. Dax is confronting about getting a promotion after he took down the commander, and he's surprised that he's being accused; it occurred to his rival not that he was doing this, because of the atrocities on the
Kubrick correctly and probably naturally realizes that the deck is too stacked against him to have an ending that would end with any last-second change-of-heart of reprieve. Instead he ends with Dax listening outside a rowdy pub as a captured German woman (Susanne Christian, Kubrick’s future wife.) is berated and then forced to perform, singing a German song that puts the entire pub in tears. I’m sure if I looked up the significance of the song, I’d find some lyrical importance in the translation, but that knowledge isn’t apparently needed to understand. Roger Ebert’s great movie review notes Truffaut’s famous quote about no one being able to make an anti-war film, and realizes that he said that before this film was allowed in France. (Shrugs) I'd certainly argue that it's Kubrick’s best anti-war film. It’s also the movie that placed Kubrick among the upper elite with directors.
Him and Douglas worked together after the film for “Spartacus,” during which they had a falling out over how to portray Douglas’s character. It would be the last and only time Kubrick directed a film without complete control of the production. He shot “Paths of Glory,” just months after finishing “The Killing”, his most underrated film. After “Spartacus,” he shot “Lolita,” very quickly, and then spent the rest of his life taking considerable time between pictures and during shoots, perfecting every aspect of every shot, and often times waiting years before even deciding on a project. Few people had the kind of clout to take years on a film, even fewer had the ability to shoot a masterpiece like “Paths of Glory,” in just a couple months. He went for quality over his lifetime, but it strange to recognize that he could’ve been great with quantity as well.