Paths of Glory (1957)
Like the bastard child of Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, and that’s A-okay by me.
Paths of Glory is about a French Colonel during WWI who is given orders from his commanding General to essentially send his men on a suicide mission in order to take a key piece of terrain merely for the sake of landing him a big fat promotion. Realizing that someone else will take his place whether he goes through with the orders or not, the Colonel proceeds with the attack only to find that two-thirds of his regiment remained in the trenches while the rest ran onto the battlefield like fish in a barrel. The commanding General witnesses all this from on high, he orders the French artillery to fire on their own trenches – orders which are immediately written off as crazy talk – and then three of the soldiers who stayed behind are court martialed for “cowardice” as a result.
It’s not a true story, and good ol’ Wikipedia tells me that it’s loosely based off actual events that don’t stray too far from the real horror of this whole situation, but fact or fiction, this is a powerhouse.
So when it comes to Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas, I’m pretty green behind the ears, I’m probably hovering around neon lime at the moment. I plan on taking care of this glaring void in my life as soon as possible, but just going off of what I’ve seen here, these two were great together.
Gonna go out on a limb here, but it seems like Kubrick changed a lot as a storyteller from his days as a budding director to his eventual status as one of the “immortals”. When I think Kubrick, I tend to think of the wonderfully weird shit: the Clockwork Oranges, the Gomer Pyles, the dead guys in bear suits performing fellatio in haunted hotel rooms, that scene in 2001 where a multi-colored eye blinked at me for five minutes. The dude seemed to make a name for himself by waving his freak flag and turning it into the craziest, most brilliant thing we’d never seen before, and while this effort is a lot more straight-laced, a whole lot of people found it pretty controversial at the time. Probably has something to do with Douglas crapping all over the idea of having a Hollywood ending.
Although from a visual standpoint, a lot of Krubicks’ signatures are very much there and come out in full force during an absolutely polarizing, single-shot scene where a stone-faced and silent Kirk Douglas walks the lengths of his trenches that are lined shoulder-to-shoulder with terrified men who can smell death in the endless mortar volleys around them. There are a number of moments in this movie that made me think “Good God…” and thank my lucky stars that I’ve never been drafted, but the way Kubrick puts you in the thick of this horror that most of people will never face is what truly brings the grim reality of the situation to life.
But the heart of this movie really is the story and its resounding anti-war sentiment that’ll shake you right up. It’s a posterboy for the futility of war, the brutal injustices which take place both on off the front lines and it’s equal parts heartbreaking and bloodboiling. No, this isn’t a documentary, but it’s easy to buy the detestable individuals involved who can sit behind a desk and think they know what it’s like to be a soldier.
And that Kirk Douglas is one hardcore mother effer as Colonel Dax. The whole cast is actually pretty good even though I don’t recognize a single one of ’em, but Douglas is just one of those old school guys who doesn’t have to blow his lid to let you know that he means business. Dax is a great character to begin with, one of the select few who actually seems to have a grasp on the difference between right and wrong, but Douglas brings that out perfectly. Now I really need to see Spartacus.
Paths of Glory is a surprisingly short movie for this genre, and while part of me wishes there had been more to stick around for, it’s actually a nice change of pace to find something like this that gets right to the point without wasting any time. At 87 minutes it feels just right, feels consciously selective of the final product, and I really dig that. The biggest thing holding me back from checking out Che and revisiting The Thin Red Line right now are those damn epic run-times, and while I’ll definitely be getting around to ’em, it’s awfully refreshing to find a war movie that doesn’t follow the usual “quantity = quality” mantra.
But the sad truth about all of this is that as long as there continue to be wars, as long as they continue to be commandeered by self-serving individuals who treat war like a game of Risk, as long as history continues to repeat itself, movies like Paths of Glory will continue to be just as pertinent. It didn’t hit me like a burst of shrapnel in the way that Gallipoli or Breaker Morant did and I’m not quite sure why everyone in the French army has a Brooklyn accent, but whatever, minor details that do nothing to make it anything short of timeless.