Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 174: Paths of Glory (1957) - Rank 5/5


Ah, World War I - the great, unnecessary, inglorious war. This era in history is often neglected by cinema. More focus is directed towards WWII ('cause 'MERIKA kicks Nazi ass) or Vietnam ('cause "MERIKA gets its ass kicked...and there's lots of drugs!). Still, the Great War at the turn of the twentieth century has always fascinated me, because the misery of battle seems that much greater when a victory means you moved ten feet forward in a mess of barbed wire, land mines, rotting corpses and mustard gas. And after taking in Stanley Kubrick's ode to the futility of this form of fighting, I'm convinced that this is possibly the best cinematic depiction of trench warfare and one of the better stories portraying the cruelty of war.

The story begins with an "impossible mission" handed down to General Mireau (George MacReady). Mireau knows the seizure of a location on the German side, referred to as "The Any Hill," will likely be a failure, but with the promise of a possible fifth star to his rank, the French general thoroughly convinces himself that the task can be accomplished. He presents the mission to the commanding officer at the front, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who balks at the estimated troop loss of 65%, but carries out his orders anyway. When the attack fails, Mireau orders that some of the remaining troops be executed for cowardice to better motivate the remaining French soldiers, but Dax protests and takes the responsibility of defending his men upon himself to prevent their death sentences.

I suppose the film could be viewed as anti-war or even anti-authoritarian, but I viewed as more of a successful social commentary on the ethical "sense" behind following orders without questioning them. "Blind loyalty," so to speak. Kubrick offers two ends of the spectrum: the more "human" side in Dax, for he can't see the sense in executing men to inspire others, and the "devoted follower" side in Mireau, who not only does as he's instructed without question, but demands others to have the same level of dedication as he (to the point that he orders his artillery gunners to fire on the retreating divisions to keep them moving forward). These two dueling views of loyalty and respect to authority raise the film to a moralistic level far above a war flick merely concerned with recreating grisly battles. Douglas certainly excels in the role of Dax and MacReady reaches the zenith of his type-cast villainy as the conniving Mireau.

That's not to say that the movie is free of skirmishes. The attempted siege of the anthill is one of the best battles I've seen on a film. The camera pans follows the tumultuous charge as shells explode and countless troops are brought down by enemy fire, while Col. Dax, in vain, endeavors to lead his men ever forward. Kubrick has several tracking shots through the trenches as well that leave you in awe, for you realize that his crew painstakingly recreated a small section of No Man's Land in then-modern day Germany. There's no doubt about the fact that this is yet another tour-de-force from one of the most prolific director's to grace Hollywood.

Watch the Trailer

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