The previous installment of the Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) retrospective discusses “Barry Lyndon.”
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax recites Samuel Johnson’s famous quote in response to General Mireau’s suicidal orders for his regiment. Mireau, on the other hand, doesn’t even know who Johnson is, let alone grasp the callous way in which he describes the percentages of dead required to take the Ant Hill.
Later, Mireau, seeing his impossible attack falter, spits, “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!”
“Paths of Glory’s” generals are not just scoundrels; they are full blown mass-murderers.
Kubrick had read Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war source novel when he was 14 and it obviously made an indelible mark on him. “It was one of the few books I read for pleasure in high school” was a remarkable admission for the prolific reader he later became in adulthood.
The social and moral distance between officers and enlisted men would continue to feature in Kubrick’s subsequent work. “Dr. Strangelove,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Full Metal Jacket” all contained commanders completely detached from the harsh realities of war their men faced in the trenches.
By placing the French generals in an 18-century chateau, “Paths of Glory” predicts the vicious class divide later explored in “Barry Lyndon.” The generals are relics from another time, out of touch and morally defunct, striking in their complete disregard for their working-class warriors.
General Mireau appears different, at the start. He holds his 8,000 men in high esteem, valuing their lives over any hopeless attack on German-held Ant Hill. He cuts an imposing figure in his dress uniform, his impressive scar marking him as a man of courage.
However, as his superior – the diminutive yet Machiavellian General Broulard – sows him the seeds of a promotion, Mireau slips readily back to type. His steadfast defence of his men rapidly disappears into the baroque surroundings of the chateau as he is corrupted by the arachnid Broulard, who walks him into an intricate web of deceit, one Mireau will eventually do anything to wriggle free from.
We cut from the opulent expanses of the chateau to the warrens of the trenches. Kubrick dazzles us with his trademark reverse tracking shot as Mireau, immaculate amongst the mud, offers his stock phrase of encouragement to his filth-ridden men (ironically the three men who will become his scapegoats for failure): “Hello soldier! Ready to kill more Germans?”
The further we follow Mireau the more we realise his love for his troops is just superficial pillow talk, aimed at other equally superficial Generals in the smoking rooms. Any benefit of the doubt we may have given Mireau is shredded on his treatment of a shell-shocked soldier. Like Patton, Mireau strikes him across the face incredulous at the very notion of shell shock. “You act like a coward!” Sneers Mireau, oblivious to the irony of his statement as shells and machine gun fire continually rain down onto the trench.
In comparison to Mireauб Colonel Dax is obviously a man of action. After all, this is Kirk Douglas. This is the man who grew beyond the studio system, the man who a few years later will become Spartacus. Dax oozes moral responsibility, borne out of his civilian career as a lawyer and an academic background that’s lost on Mireau.
Dax shows Mireau the Ant Hill through field glasses, the closest the General will ever get to it. By reducing his men to the size of ants and referring to their objective as such, Mireau can play his percentage game with their lives without remorse.
Under a single light, Dax is almost interrogated as Mireau blackmails him into leading the attack by threatening to relieve him of his command. Dax cannot change the order but he can at least lead his men, thus sharing their horrendous privations.
When Dax sends out a 3-man patrol to reconnoitre no man’s land, ominous drums mark time in another glimpse into Kubrick’s future – that of Barry’s duel with his stepson in “Barry Lyndon” and Joker’s struggle with the sniper in “Full Metal Jacket.”
If Mireau’s path to glory is shaped by the gleaming interiors of the chateau and a quick march along the duck boards, then Dax’s is littered with the charred remains of his men in the infernal moonscape of no man’s land. Their doomed assault is relentlessly tracked by Kubrick’s unflinching lens, the incessant drone of the artillery invisibly driving them on to destruction. Incensed with their failure and seeing his own glory slipping away with the blood of his men, Mireau orders the artillery to fire upon them. Thankfully, the artillery officer refuses, providing the film with another seemingly decent counterpoint to the increasingly deranged Mireau. Yet unlike Dax, the artillery officer refuses the order because Mireau has not followed the correct protocol for such an order and his own neck would be on the line if the General happened to be killed.
Enraged, Mireau orders a court martial over which Brouland has ultimate control. Around what could be a card table, a perverse numbers game commences. Mireau wants to make an example of the regiment whom he refers to as “scum” despite recognising their past heroism. He proposes the old Roman punishment of Decimation, the random execution of one man in one hundred.
Aghast, Dax sarcastically suggests that they “Shoot the entire regiment.” Horrifically, Dax’s statement lost on his superiors. Broulard replies, “You’re missing the point entirely. We don’t want to slaughter the French Army. All we want to do is set an example.” Broulard suggests a dozen men be executed.
Broulard is manipulative in the extreme. Acting as referee between Dax and Mireau, not once is his part in the entire debacle ever mentioned. Kubrick has his three actors shoot knowing looks back and forth across the scene as Mireau gradually realises that if he pushes too much, he could be held to account. Outdone by Broulard he plays his final hand; one man from each company will be selected for the firing squad.
The three men are selected for different reasons. Corporal Paris is slected to keep him quiet over an earlier murder, Private Ferol simply because his commander thinks he is a “social undesirable”, and Private Arnaud – the best man in his company – is simply drawn by lot.
Dax defends his men at the court-martial despite it being biased against from the start. Kubrick positions the enlisted men as pawns on a chessboard; the judges seem like kings and knights behind their ornate desks. The cavernous hall in which the farcical proceedings take place is shot in luxurious deep focus, further highlighting the travesty of justice being played out on its highly polished floors.
The men are questioned in medium close-up underneath a vast painting that threatens to suck their souls into it. Kubrick perches Mireau on the edge of an elaborate couch, detached, once more, from the reality of the proceedings. Dax is again the man of action as the camera follows him across the room, condemning the court. When the men are found guilty under such cultured 18 century surroundings, it is as if the age of reason had never taken place.
Dax later learns that Mireau tried to shell his own men. He meets Broulard at a ball and employs the General’s tactics of leading his victim around in ever decreasing circles to unbalance them – only Dax tries to jolt Broulard into a correct decision, not a corrupting one. Broulard departs and Kubrick fades to black, leaving the audience to guess if the General will grant a reprieve.
When we fade in we know his decision. Kubrick is meticulous in his treatment of the firing squad and the attention to detail is morbidly fascinating. The posts on which the three are to meet their fate are shot like mini monoliths from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the position of the firing squad like the Prussian infantry in “Barry Lyndon.” Kubrick once again has the continuous single beat of drums push onward to this one sided duel. As soon as they stop, the men are executed suddenly.
We have no time to pause, no time to grieve, as we are back with Mireau and Broulard. Kubrick has brought us full circle. “Paths of Glory” does not cheat us with a weak ending – the men were not saved and Broulard is true to his slippery character. Over breakfast, he calmly drops into conversation that Mireau will face an enquiry for his actions. Mireau responds, perfectly straight-faced, “ I have only one last thing to say to you George. The man you stabbed in the back is a soldier.”
In a final act of cynicism, Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job. Only then does Broulard realise the Colonel was not angling for Mireau’s command:
“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot. We’re fighting a war, a war that we’ve got to win. Those men didn’t fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist he answer them. Wherein did I go wrong?”
Dax answers, “Because you don’t know the answer to that question…I pity you.”
Kubrick thought Samuel Johnson was right.