Monday, November 16, 2009

Paths of Glory 1957: the rites of murder

Stanley Kubrick ( 1928-99 ); Kirk Douglas, 85 minutes.

* Kirk Douglas as a Colonel in the French army is asked to lead an impossible attack on an enemy position which will certainly cost the lives of 90% of his men. The attack is a failure and leads to a court martial in which three men are indicted for cowardice....*

"With this film Stanley Kubrick joins the ranks of great directors, never to depart"......Ebert.

A must see anti-war war movie. ..."anti-authoritarian ignorance." ( Stanley Kubrick ) A black and white epic of war, among the best, if not the best.

Brilliant, grim, funny. A pace quickening, spell binding battle-field and court-martial drama. A reconstruction of trench warfare during WW1 in dazzling B/W. Monochrome seems particularly appropriate for WW1. In fact monochrome is correct for any war.

Kubrick seems to be playing on many themes which will reappear in Strangelove, Lolita and Space Odyssey. He surveys the war of the trenches in  visual splendour. The trenches have evolved into well organised human habitations since the war has been long, and daily dying a way of life. In this twilit world of sandbags and dust, gunfire is as routine and continuous as chirruping of birds. He examines the workings of the military hierarchy with un-subtle satire. Human life has little meaning, even that of your own side.  A general orders machine gun fire to be opened on his own soldiers.

 The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave....Thomas Gray

The blood of the mighty is precious. The scales of justice are tilted. Stealing a loaf of bread is equally reprehensible whether done by a beggar or a lord.

The military rituals. The ceremonies of the court martial,  the execution-ground and of the officer's mess. How evolved, how full of codes and niceties is war, how un-wholesome from within. Imagine the ritual of the execution, with all it's pomp and ceremony, like a mass at a cathedral, through the eyes of the condemned men.

The finale. A captured German girl tearfully sings to the French troops. As the song progresses, their obscene gesture turn to tears and we have the extraordinary spectacle of a whole audience of battle hardened soldiers in tears. Friend and foe are comrades as they mourn the scourge of war. The machinery of the state is the common enemy, or is it? To be officer or men is a quirk of chance. Kirk Douglas says he is ashamed to be a human being. What Kubrick is indicting in this melancholy film is the fact of being human. Mankind is a sickly beast.

Roger Ebert's review

No comments: