Paths of Glory (1957)

I am usually hard-pressed to decide whether Paths Of Glory (1957) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is my favourite Stanley Kubrick film. But since I’m still stuck in the desolation of the A-Levels, it would be rather apt to blog about Glory.

It ends on an ambivalent tone, without moral judgement, without a didactic message.

That is Paths Of Glory, a film that mere captures an endless image of carnal and mindless violence. Kubrick tells the story of a French colonel by the name of Dax (played by the one and only Kirk Douglas) in the First World War who leads a pointless assault on an impregnable German fortification under the callous orders of a general who desires great accolades. With the assault unravelling into a senseless slaughter with an eventual unauthorised retreat, the infuriated general orders the execution of three soldiers to “set an example” for army’s intolerance of cowardice. Colonel Dax is now appointed as the defence in the court martial that is but a kangaroo court. The three men are eventually executed by firing squad in the yard of an opulent army HQ despite the valiant defence of Dax and despite the comforts a priest. Cue the curtains.

It is ironic that the title evokes such a sense of grandiosity and purpose when the film is nothing much than a listless image of human helplessness and facelessness in war. Facelessness is a key motif throughout the film: the German soldiers are never depicted at all (perhaps out of financial reasons) – they fight a faceless enemy; there is a long shot in the trenches showing row after row of cowering French troops against artillery fire but again there is a sense of facelessness in how the audience never really achieves any sort of emotional connection with any of them; the raucous and horny men we see in the final scene in the film are altogether faceless in their lust accentuated ironically by the continuous shots of their laughing faces; the court martial tribunal is faceless in their unanimity and legalism with their pre-determined verdicts.

At the same time we are also exposed to the recurring helplessness of men. Be it the painful portrayal of the thorough failures of Colonel Dax’s efforts to secure the acquittal of the three men, be it the pathetic portrayal of the priest who fails to comfort one of the pious death row soldiers, be it the sympathetic depiction of the other death row soldier who resentfully kills a cockroach in his cell for being alive when he “would be dead the next morning”. One may argue that it nihilism at it rawest with the complete and tragic absence of god but the very circumstances of the plot are brought about by human agency – the callous decisions of the general, the mindless intransigence of the sentencing tribunal, on and the macro scale, the very states that are driving the war. It is ultimately human helplessness in face of immovable and faceless authority.

Therein these two motifs of facelessness and human helplessness is the essence of Kubrick’s message – the dehumanising effects of human institution and authority. It is not a war film per se, war is merely the setting by which Kubrick plays out this biting image of dehumanisation.

It is further reinforced by the thorough lack of women in the film (except in the last scene of course) for what we have now is not humans but rather soldiers, compartmentalised and packed into uniforms and trenches, effaced of civilisation that women can be argued to symbolise. When a woman finally appears in the final scene, she is but an object of scorn and entertainment, to be oogled at, laughed at, wolf-whistled at. It is not a regiment of middle-aged lecherous men that partakes in this orgy of raucous victimisation but a medley of male figures that is a meticulous cross-section of French society – young men of all kind, the middle-aged and the aged and war-weary. The oh-so moral Colonel Dax, just like the audience, can only helplessly watch the scene with distaste and disgust. In such critical cinematic ability, what we see is raw, carnal animalism, what we see is a blatant rejection of civility and what we see is the raw psyche of senseless warfare and dehumanisation.

Just when you thought Kubrick would conclude the film on a vitriolic bludgeoning of the immorality of man, he instead ends it on a hint of redemption. The woman is coaxed into singing and as she sings a song incomprehensible to the men (for she is German and the soldiers are French) but the unexpected happens. They start to cry.

In perhaps one of the most depressing scenes in cinematic history, the wolf-whistles and raucous laughter degenerates into a scene of sobbing and humming. It is in this solidarity of emotions or rather the catharsis of emotions antithetical to the helpless tone of the earlier parts of the film that we see human faces again. The audience gains a transcendental catharsis while Colonel Dax goes back to the front, for he, unlike the audience, is still ultimately trapped in the mindless abyss of militaristic institutions and authority.

No song and no measure of hope can help him. There are no paths of glory for him.

Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax

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