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Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory, 1957

In the midst of WWI, a French company is ordered to make an obviously-doomed attack on an entrenched German position. When the attack, which from the get-go was estimated to kill over half of the men even if all went well, goes even more poorly than planned, and a humiliated leadership decides to put the soldiers on trial for cowardice. Three men are selected to "represent" their squad and face potential execution. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has previous experience in trials, and steps up to defend the men.

I am not the biggest fan of Kubrick. But I want to give a real thank you to whoever it was in the last few weeks who wrote something on here about one of his films and used the term "dehumanizing". I think that this element of Kubrick's films is both where his great skill is and what keeps me often from fully engaging with his movies.

That said, I think that this is easily--by, like, a wide margin--my favorite film that I have seen from Kubrick. It raised questions about what allows such dehumanization to happen in the first place and how different personalities react to it.

The difference, for me, is largely in the character (and Douglas's amazing performance) of Dax. Before the action even begins, Dax has the haunted look of a man who has seen too much. We know from beginning exposition that his men have already been through punishing encounters and have yet to recover to their full strength. He is a kernel of empathy and determination in the middle of a war machine that puts no value in the former. He is a much needed audience surrogate--a witness within the madness, even when he is powerless to stop grave injustice.

The film is bookended with two sequences that reveal the way that people talk themselves, essentially, into cruelty and dehumanization of others. In the very first sequence, two generals meet in the office of one, Mireau (George McReady). Mireau is ordered to send the men out on their disastrous mission. He immediately points out that the men are too worn out, that they are short on munitions, and that even a group at full power would struggle to accomplish what they are being asked to do. Then he finds out that there might be a promotion in it for him. As he walks the room, literally walking in circles, we watch as he slowly convinces himself that the extra munitions aren't necessary. That the men are up for anything is properly motivated (and to suggest otherwise would be to insult the soldiers!). That they can make it happen.

This movie also contains what may be one of the best darkly comic lines I've ever heard. (MAJOR SPOILERS)
WARNING: spoilers below
when one general compliments another that "your men died well today."

In the end of the film (no spoilers! I promise!) we see a young German woman who has been taken prisoner. Tear-streaked and dragged up on stage in front of a group of rowdy and leering soldiers, she is first ordered to greet the men and then berated for not speaking a "civilized" language. While the sympathy of the film lies largely with the soldiers for most of the film in a dichotomy of powerful/powerless, this sequence is a good reminder that anyone can fall prey to a mindset in which other people are worth less and do not deserve mercy. Dax bears witness to this moment as to all of the others in the film.

This film has great use of point of view shots: everything from a man walking a seemingly endless trench filled with soldiers to the lonely point of view of a man regarding the post of a firing squad. But though the film makes good use of these shots, I loved that it always returned to a shot of Dax watching, observing. We are privy to the pain of injustice but also the pain of witnessing injustice. Too often with Kubrick I feel as if the film, in portraying dehumanization, itself has pushed the characters away. I often struggle to emotionally connect to his movies beyond the basic mechanics of his plots. Most of the time I find myself experiencing a distanced appreciation for his technical skills but not much deeper than that.

This film, much like any well-made war film, was hard to watch and emotionally wrenching. At the same time, of any film I've seen from Kubrick, this one most felt like there was a beating heart in the center, even if that heart was breaking. Highly recommended.