Paths of Glory

(Originally placed online in 2000. Am migrating here from another part of the website.)

Unusual for him to do while watching a film, about a quarter of the way through Paths of Glory my husband got up, went in and sat in front of the computer to check the email. I waited a moment then asked, “Can’t watch?” “No,” he said.” “It’s too real and people are too stupid.”

Paths of Glory may be anti-war, but it also contemplates your basic problems in “power over” hierarchical structures. Actually, it’s anti-war primarily through exploration of what happens when you take your typical business situation only instead of bottom-level employees you have infantry privates, and the pyramid of managers ranges from non-coms to commissioned officers to the Board of Directors parading about as Generals, occasionally visiting the floor all nice and friendly like, querying all the clerks and hosts and hostesses and stock personnel, “Hey, you ready to smile and sell today?” Most people would do well to ask themselves (at least those with a thread of cynical honesty in their blood) how they think they’d fare as an infantry private under any number of managers/bosses they’ve had. Think dealing with people’s lives lends any more responsibility and/or intelligence than pushing the employees to sell more, sell more?–hey buddy, you, the one leaning against the wall, I don’t care if you have been busting your ass all day and are taking a brief breather, I want to see all my little chickens out in the aisles doing something continually even if the something means and merits nothing, so you get out there and sell yourself because it’s not just product we’re interested in pushing we want to project an image that’ll make the civilian sigh and say, “Wow, they really care about people there, don’t they. Instead of going to church this Sunday, what say we go down to the local Wal-Mart.”

Scary to think how capriciously my life would have been handled, considering some of the people I’ve worked under, if we had been dressed in military fatigues.

The good thing about a job is you can always quit. As an infantryman in Paths of Glory, if you think you’ve been ordered to take a course so radically stupid that you’re soon going to be mulch for no other reason than to satisfy someone else’s ego-mania, to dare to balk means you’re dead meat anyway. Fail and you’re dead meat anyway. As is pointed out in the film, what’s the proof an objective is impossible if not for heaps of dead bodies that testify to that fact.

Near the beginning of Paths of Glory General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) visits General Mireau (George Macready) at the palatial chateau from which he’s running his command. When he compliments Mireau on the environment, Mireau’s reply is, “Well, I try to create a pleasant atmosphere in which to work.”

The reason Broulard is there is very secret. Top secret. A group of armies is forming on the front for an offensive very soon and headquarters is determined to make a complete break through. Hearing this news, Mireau smiles. It’s about the ant hill, isn’t it? And yes, it is, about the ant hill. Broulard wants Mireau’s men to take it. Mireau argues his men couldn’t possibly. Broulard suggests a promotion is in the wings for Mireau if his men are able to do it, and Mireau literally does a reverse-face and says, yes, his men mean more to him than any new stars but he believes his men can do the job.

How many would take Mireau’s words at face value–I don’t mean in the movie, but if reading a nice PR story about the General and how much he cares for his men and their lives? If the veneer says yes we’ve got some precious wood here, how many will care that it’s laid over Masonite? So, I can’t really say if Kubrick makes his point subtly or not, when next we see Mireau he is gliding through an otherworldly hell of log and twig banked trenches, a very different wartime work environment from the palatial chateau where he runs his command. To Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) he says, “Hello there soldier, ready to kill some Germans?” A few yards later, he asks the same of Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker). The third fellow he asks is, however, shell-shocked and his reply isn’t quite what the General wants to hear. Livid, the General punches him then orders him taken away to where he can’t contaminate the other men.

The General has come down to the lower reaches of hell to give the news to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) his men are to take the ant hill. The expense? It’s estimated Dax will lose 5 percent of the men to their own barrage, 10 percent more crossing No Man’s Land, a further 20 percent at the wire, and 25 percent more with the taking of the ant hill. The attack is to be the 10th, the next day.

On the 10th, 60% of the men are to die so that Mireau will receive his promotion.

Or, if you fail to get yourself killed trying to take the ant hill, you can be one of three men chosen for a court-martial and execution. Which is what happens. Dax and his men fail, one company never even making it out of the trenches.

Ferol, the first individual Mireau questioned during his tour of the trenches, is chosen to undergo the court-martial because he is “socially undesirable.”

The enemy is anyone socially undesirable.

Paris is chosen because he’s an inconvenient reminder of cowardice. The night before the failed attempt to take the ant hill, he went on a reconnaissance mission with Private Lejeune and Lieutenant Roget. Under the direction of Lieutenant Roget, Lejeune was sent ahead to explore an unidentified fixture in the Max Ernst surreal landscape which, when briefly illuminated by a flare, reveals what had seemed to be earth as a dead body. Lejeune tardy in returning, Roget pitched a grenade and ran, the grenade killing Lejeune. Paris being a witness, is thus chosen by Roget out of his group for the court-martial.

For Roget, the enemy is a witness to his own critical shortcomings.

The third individual, Arnaud, did not speak to the General during his tour. Interestingly he stood nearby during the confrontation with the shell-shocked soldier. But this third individual was chosen by lot for the court-martial.

This is an enemy selected purely by chance.

During the trial we learn that Ferol had returned to the trenches during the disastrous attack on the ant hill because with the exception of one other individual, the soldiers around him had been killed; they couldn’t take the ant hill alone. Arnaud had been ordered back to the trenches with the rest of his company. Paris had never made it out of the trenches, a dead soldier falling on him and knocking him out, causing a head injury.

Dax stands as defense for the three men, but the conclusion of the trial is foregone. The men are sentenced to death.

In Spartacus the defeated slaves were all crucified, each declaring themselves Spartacus, each man in essence a Christ figure. Here instead we have three men chosen as a substitute sacrifice for the remainder of their fellows. Scapegoats to shoulder the sin of failing to carry out the will of the generals.

The three men are served their “last supper”. Ferol decides not to eat in case the food is drugged. A priest (Emile Meyer) arrives to hear their confessions. Arnaud brandishes a bottle of wine which he says is his religion. The priest talks of salvation for all. When Arnaud attacks the priest, Paris strikes him. Arnaud falls against a wall and sustains a skull fracture.

In a conversation highlighted before the attempt to take the ant hill, Arnaud (I believe it was Arnaud) had discussed with a fellow soldier what people feared most, death or being hurt. He said it was being hurt. He talked about how he preferred protection for his head, rather than his tail, because the tail was meat while the head was bone. The irony is that he, the Dionysian wine-drinker, goes to his execution almost unconscious from a head injury and near death anyway. Not to mention that he receives the head injury fighting with Paris, who himself was kept from going into battle because of a head injury he received when a man fell on him and knocked him unconscious.

In a sense, Arnaud has achieved what he wanted, oblivion. He will go to the stake barely semi-conscious.

The crucifixion motif is played out with the execution. The priest tells Ferol he will be that day in paradise. Ferol, lamenting and unreconciled to the end, is tied to the central stake, while Arnaud’s stretcher is lashed to the stake to his right, and Paris is tied to his left. Christ and the two thieves. I have wondered if this is intentional or if archetypes are so persistent that it is almost inevitable that in conjunction with certain artifacts there will appear a Christ/surrogate king figure as well as his Judas. And if it is intentional, how do the men compose in effect a single body, each communicating a different aspect of the individual.

Had they taken the ant hill, they were told they would have to last until 7 in the evening when they could then expect some support from the 72nd. Having not taken the ant hill, they are executed at 7 in the morning on the 12th.

Incredible really that the cartoonish Spartacus would follow such a biting film as Paths of Glory. Each man is real, fully fleshed, whereas in Spartacus they each have a flat cardboard quality never moving beyond the boundaries of a “character.” But then Paths of Glory was controversial and bypassed for any Academy Awards. Spartacus garnered several.

Macready and Meeker both took on difficult roles, playing utterly detestable if pathetic men, and are so convincing it is difficult to imagine them as anything but. Douglas flashes his pecs, but it’s when he first appears, and that gotten out of the way he becomes the soldier-lawyer, so disgusted by the war and his superiors that he would inform Mireau that Samuel Johnson said patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Carey, Turkel and Morris are beyond fine, so that by the time they are being paraded to their execution it occurs to one how much of the film is a matter of the ensemble. The camera grasps each of them in the frame and each holds his place, none extinguishing the other, no one overshadowing or being eclipsed by any other.

The movie ends with our first sighting of a German. A prisoner. A civilian. It is a young woman who is forced on stage to perform before a rowdy crowd of soldiers. All this time, we have been encouraged to see each infantryman as an individual of independent dignity, whose lives are ruthlessly handled by superiors who count them as nothing but animals, but now they have little empathy for the girl. Dax stands at the doorway, disgust at their beastliness etching his face. Then the girl begins to sing, and in what is rather the only unbelievable scene in the film, all the soldiers fall under the spell of her poignant song which is sung in German. Do they understand the words? Now, they all seem to speak again the same language, civilian or soldier, German or French. The holy spirit has descended. It is the Pentecost. The men, one and all, give in to the song. Some cry. An impressive scene, but one that rings idealistically false. There will always be one or two hecklers.

A curiosity to be considered is that when Dax is ordered to take the ant hill, Mireau says it is certainly pregnable, to which Dax responds, “Sounds kind of odd though, doesn’t it, something to do with giving birth?” As pointed out, until now we haven’t seen a single German, not one enemy soldier. For that matter, we haven’t seen a single woman either. Then when an example of the captive enemy is show, is it a soldier or a man? No, a civilian woman who sings “like a bird.” Stray words are choice in the majority of Kubrick’s films. And birds form a theme here so that they become as spare, pointed voices. When Roget, Paris and Lejeune are on reconnaissance, when the flare goes off, right before Lejeune (le jeune meaning “the youth”) is killed, there is the caw of a crow. Then the morning of the death march of the prisoners to be executed, we have the crow of a rooster. Now, finally, here is this woman whose bird song quiets the men, calls them to hum along with her, to retreat into the privacy of each their own thoughts. I’ve no conjectures to make on meaning, I only thought these details merited some notice.

The German woman does bring us round to the question again of who is the enemy, and what is the ant hill? When Mireau realized that the men weren’t advancing, that an entire company still remained in the trenches, he ordered his own artillery to fire on them. The order was refused, was reported and becomes at the end the hint of Mireau’s eventual downfall, for he will have to face an inquiry into his actions. His friend, General Broulard, thus becomes his enemy; not to mention Mireau is an enemy to himself in that this order is what will take him down.

So is the enemy the brass to the private–and yet the brass are willing to turn on each other when the evidence is uncontestable. Is the enemy everyone, each man to himself. From where comes this captive woman who sings her plaintive song that softens the hearts of the soldier?

As the film winds its way along, the relentless destiny of death coming to us all becomes the primary theme, overtaking anti-war sentiments. What struck me most about Barry Lyndon when I first saw it, was the sense of the eternal, man diminishing to nothing in the face of the infinite. In Paths of Glory the pitiless infinite is also felt roaming the impersonal halls of the French chateau (actually Schleissheim Palace, near Munich) and the trenches in which so many men are packed like ants, all looking like they are already in the grave and dusted with lime. But there is also an intense, personal intimacy. The two are played against each other and conspire together as if the impersonal infinite is one pole of a cross while the individual is the other and where the two poles meet a mystic equation is presented which has no summation other than “it is”. Combine millions of such mystic equations, one for every individual who has lived and died, and fate becomes a mosaic of interlocking leggo blocks with cause and consequence for every individual action in the ant hill sharply defined but no less a mystery for the factor of chance which invisibly mortars all conjunctions. Whether intended or not, all this is communicated in Paths of Glory.

* * * * * *

Paths of Glory

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Kirk Douglas–Colonel Dax
Ralph Meeker–Corporal Paris
Aldolphe Menjou–General Broulard
George Macready–General Mireau
Wayne Morris–Lieutenant Roget
Richard Anderson–Major Saint-Auban
Joe Turkel–Private Arnaud
Christiane Kubrick–German singer
Emile Meyer–Priest
Kem Dibbs–Private Lejeune
Timothy Carey–Private Ferol

Released 1957 (USA)

Published by

Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

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