Sunday, June 3, 2007

Kubrick's Rubes

“The boasts of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave”

Gray – “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Lately I consider my satellite dish as my own personal slot machine and I came up winners again last night. Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) was starting just after midnight which is just right for me and in no short order I surrounded myself with beer, potato chips, cigarettes, darkness and peace but for the gentle glow of the small screen. I was a caveman worshiping my electronic fire. Life was good.

Set during the middle of WWI in France, the film begins as the hellish stalemate of trench warfare is in its second year of futility with neither the French or German armies able to advance their positions meaningfully and certainly not without a brutally high cost. The first scene shows no battlefield but rather takes place in a literal French Palace between Commanding Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and his hand picked choice for the next Big mission, Gen. Mireau (The great George Macready). Broulard is an older oily puppet master with the type of worldly confidence that comes from decades of wielding absolute power absolutely, coupled with the wicked intelligence to bend lesser men to his will and an unshakeable faith in his vision of his world. Mireau addresses him as “Gen.” or “Sir”. Broulard calls his General, “Paul”.


Broulard has a mission for Mireau’s army, a “favor” to ask. Will Mireau’s men storm “the Anthill”, a heavily fortified German compound, tomorrow morning, take it and hold it until afternoon?
Mireau thanks the Gen. for the opportunity but ensures him that the price to be paid by his Men in human lives would be terrible and further, that the chances of realistic success would be almost none at any price. He cannot in good conscience commit his men to such a suicidal endeavor.
Broulard, like any good chess player, is at least two steps ahead of him. He expresses his mild disappointment but is sympathetic to Mireau’s predicament; such a shame really since he had been considering Mireau for promotion to his highest rank if the Gen. would’ve been able to accept and complete the mission. Well, they can always find someone else for the job and France must and will fight on without him.

Mireau’s eyes flash with fire as the viewer gets his first real feel for the spongy moral ground we are standing on in that Palace of power and opulence.

Seeing his chances for advancement fly away, Mireau tucks away that pesky conscience and almost immediately acquiesces to his superior’s point-of-view- Yes, perhaps it can be done!
Broulard then sits down to a fine gourmet lunch being served as Mireau gets to work on the order.

Cut to the trenches. Mireau is marching proudly along and exchanging rah-rah patter with the burned out grunts as mortar rounds fall around them.

“Ready to kill more Germans today soldier?”


His last stop is the dugout of the Unit Commander, and man who will actually be leading the charge as Mireau watches safely from a distance, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas). Amid the squalor of his situation the Colonel is given his order and almost defiantly accepts it. He is promised artillery support and nothing more. Then Mireau launches into his predictions concerning the number and percentage of causalities Dax and his men will likely suffer while we watch Dax’s eyes harden as his stomach, no doubt, turns. This calm discussion of percentages, casualties and lives will become a theme of the film. Mireau finishes his neat little spiel with a jaunty,

“…leaving almost 40% to take and hold the anthill.”

In the filthy slop of that claustrophobic hell that spongy moral ground from the distant pristine Palace turns to bloody quicksand with Dax and his men stuck in the middle as Mireau bids a hearty farewell and good luck.

The first action begins that night as Dax orders Lt. Roget to take two men and recon the forward position in preparation for the morning assault. Roget (who unbeknownst to Dax has been drinking heavily) picks Pvt. Lejuene and Cpl. Paris and the three crawl silently out to the middle of No-Mans-Land where the Lt. orders the Pvt. to scout ahead, while they cover him, find as much intelligence as he can then rendezvous back so all three can return together. Lejuene crawls forward and disappears into the darkness, almost immediately the Germans pop a few flares into the air and drop a few mortar rounds somewhere behind Roget and Cpl. Paris. Shots are fired forward. Lt. Roget panics and orders a bug out, Cpl. Paris sternly reminds him that they have to wait for Lejuene.
“He’s probably dead!” Roget hisses as he flips a grenade forward and beats a hasty retreat leaving Paris all alone.
The grenade explodes, all firing stops and Paris decides to crawl forward and search for the abandoned Lejuene. As he is attempting to quietly call out to his comrade he slips and tumbles into a mortar hole where he discovers the freshly grenaded, still smoking corpse of Pvt. Lejuene.

The cinematic knife twists a little deeper.

Back in the relative safety of his dugout the cowardly murderer Lt. Roget collects himself and threatens to bring Paris up on charges if he reports what he saw. Col. Dax enters demanding information and Roget, unwisely, chooses to remain silent. Dax smells a rat but has no time to deal with it as the morning attack will commence in only hours.

We begin to guess that there may be no happy endings.

Dawn brings the French artillery barrage as the men crouch in their trenches and prepare to charge into the German barb wire, bullets, grenades, mortars and their…..duty. Gen. Mireau lustily eyes the impending battle through a telescope in his fortified faraway bunker.
The barrage ends and Col. Dax leads his men into the breech.

It is a slaughter.

Dax and his men stumble and crawl forward as they’re being cut to pieces and blown apart. A few sickening minutes into the battle Dax collapses into a mortar ditch perhaps 30 yards and numerous lives away from the mornings start. Mireau observes from his safe distance that nearly half of Dax’s unit have not joined the charge and remain in the trench. He is incensed and orders his artillery to fire on their own troops in a twisted attempt to move them out of the trenches and into the battlefield.

It is then that our hero, such as it is, arrives.

Capt. Rousseau, the artillery Commander, flatly refuses the order. Mireau is enraged and grabs the field radio himself to personally intimidate Rousseau into following his personal order. Rousseau, in the first truly noble moment of the film, again flatly refuses the General. He will not fire on his own men without a hand-written order from the Gen. himself, hand-delivered to him as per Army regulations. Mireau slams the receiver down in frustration as he, correctly, assesses that he has met his match and Rousseau will not be budged. Simultaneously Dax realizes his situation and fights back to the trench in a vain effort to rally the remainder of his men for one final charge.

The murderous Lt. Roget, who hasn’t left the trench, cowers and whines,

“We can’t, sir…we can’t…it’s impossible!”

Dax stoically gives it his all,


He blows his whistle to lead the charge and jumps on the ladder to be the first man out. At that moment the survivors of the initial force come desperately tumbling back into the trench beaten, bloody and out of their minds with fear. As Dax climbs the ladder the corpse of a freshly shot soldier collapses onto him and knocks him back into the trench.

The battle is over.

The film has only begun.

Mireau is enraged and orders charges to be brought on the troops as he delivers one of the classic lines from the film.

“If those sweethearts won’t face German bullets then, by God, they’ll face French ones!”

Back to the Palace-

Broulard is in a meeting with Mireau to discuss the specifics of the charges. He has invited Dax to the table and the three hammer it out. Mireau wants blood, Dax is level headed and properly sarcastic, Broulard is above it all. The negotiations begin and eventually Dax manages to talk them down to only 3 (Mireau began at 100) men facing trial and almost certain execution. The trial will begin in 2 hours. Col. Dax will defend the accused. Lt. Roget will pick the 3 lucky soldiers.

The least of the men will decide the fate of the best.

Kubrick shot this film in 1957 by the way.

The decision is that Pvt. Ferol, Pvt. Arnaud and Cpl. Paris will face charges and execution. Pvt. Ferol has been chosen because he is an undesirable personality. Cpl. Paris, of course, has been singled out so that his execution will permanently erase any possible record of Lt. Roget’s homicidal cowardice. Pvt. Arnaud has been chosen by lottery.


The film spins on it’s axis as all sense of justice is mocked. This is war, not a tea party.

The trial, like most in real life, is perfunctory. It’s a play to assuage the guilt of the prosecution, it is cruel, ugly, swift and inevitable. The men are brought to their communal cell to begin the wait for dawn and their deaths by firing squad.

Cpl. Paris attempts to grasp some meaning in his sickening and short existence as a fat cockroach moves across a table that Ferol is sitting at and Kubrick delivers the biggest blackest belly laugh I’ve ever felt at the movies-

Paris- “Look at that roach…tomorrow morning it’ll be alive and I’ll be dead….it’ll have more contact with my wife and children than I will. I’ll be nothing and it’ll be alive.”

Ferol- (Smacks his hand down on the roach) “Now you got the edge on him.”

When I finally stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes a priest enters the cell to offer the condemned………don’t know……….absolution?.......solace?.....bullshit?

Pvt Arnaud (the lotto pick) is offended by his presence and platitudes and lets the Padre have it with both barrels. The priest babbles on and Arnaud snaps, smacking the Padre in the jaw, knocking him to the ground then advancing to finish the job. Cpl. Paris, who has found some comfort from the man of religion, leaps up to defend the fallen cleric and, being the bigger and more powerful man, knocks Arnaud down with a roundhouse right where the Pvt. cracks his head on a large rock immediately losing consciousness. Medics are summoned.
Arnaud has suffered a serious skull fracture and will most likely not survive the night to face the morning’s bullets. The Palace officers order that he be strapped to a 4-wheeler and propped up before the firing squad in the event that he lives through the night. By this point in the film madness is the only reality and we accept it as the doomed soldiers accept their fate.

The morning arrives and the men are marched out and offered blindfolds by the despicable Lt. Roget who, in a powerful scene, has been forced by Dax to head the execution. Cpl. Paris declines his blindfold and Roget, who will doubtless relive the moment for the remainder of his cowardly life, whispers to the man he has condemned,

“I’m sorry.”

In one abrupt, brilliant low-angle shot, Kubrick delivers the full horror of the execution.

Cut back to the Palace and the final meeting between Dax, Mireau and the all-powerful Gen. Broulard.
Col. Dax has fought valiantly for the length of the film only to lose everything but his life yet he plays his last card in cunning style. He’s gotten wind of Mireau’s order to fire on his own troops and demands that an investigation be held to determine Mireau’s guilt. Mireau is cowed as Broulard casually weighs everyone’s future.
An investigation will be held and Mireau’s eyes visibly change as he stares into his own noose. He is dismissed to await his fate as Broulard regards Dax.
For the only time in the film Gen Broulard incorrectly analyzes the situation. He pegs Dax as a climber and offers him Mireau’s command along with the accompanied stars, prestige and relative safety.
Kirk Douglas is masterful as Dax unleashes his pent up, righteous fury on the serene General Broulard until Kubrick drops us all the way down the moral rabbit hole.

Broulard responds-

“Col. Dax, you’re a disappointment to me. You’ve spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau’s command. You are an idealist and I pity you as I would the village idiot. We’re fighting a War, Dax….a War that we’ve got to win. Those men didn’t fight so they were shot. You bring charges against Gen. Mireau so I insist that he answer them. Wherein have I done wrong?”

Indeed. This is the film's harsh answer to the uneasy question that no peace lover wants to ask because we do live in a world of fences and someone does have to protect the backyard.

Cut to the final haunting scene-

The remnants of Dax’s men, on a brief reprieve from the trenches, sit in a café to await their orders. The sleazy MC of the café has a show in store for the filthy, defeated soldiers. He brings out the “entertainment”. She is a voluptuous young German girl who obviously has been chosen for her “talent”. The MC leers as the men hoot, holler and catcall raucously; the anger, frustration, blood and rape in their eyes is the ugly evidence of their experience. The girl will start the show with a song. There are tears in her eyes and it is clear that she is not there of her own free will. She begins to sing as the men pound their fists on the tables, drooling and gnashing their teeth.

Her voice is lovely, clear and strong.

The tears run down her face as she offers the men a simple French folk song. She sings on and on and the room begins to change. The men, in turn, grow quiet and strain to listen to her every note, their eyes no longer filled with bloodlust but something very different. Near the end of the song the men, young, old, scarred, beaten, begin to sing along with her, some have tears in their eyes. All of them are seeing something pure and something they might remember but have forgotten on the battlefield. Something they might have once had but may never again have the chance to hold. Some past that will never be their future.

Dax is dismissed from the Palace and approaches the café where he is met by Broulard’s Staff Sergeant. He and his men are ordered to report immediately back to the frontline. Dax accepts this order as he listens to the men singing inside the café. He is resigned.

“Well………….give the men a few more minutes.”

Credits roll.

I have been shot at three times in anger and have had guns dropped in my face more than once but I’ve never been a soldier in any army or gang and can never know the desperation of that terrible toll. But as I heard Dax’s words I thought, maybe, just maybe………that is every soldiers dream.

Just a few more minutes.

I stared at the screen and wondered if President George W. Bush and all his White House cronies might possibly be watching along with me but……… somehow………..

I kind of doubt it.

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