Paths Of Glory (1958)
You can probably imagine my shell-shocked reaction when the May schedule for the BFI marched through my unprotected letterbox a few weeks back, heralding the news that the BFI had assembled a lovely new digital print of what can be argued as Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece – the 1958 anti-war classic Paths Of Glory. Although technically this was Stanley’s fourth feature it was his second studio commission after the breakthrough clockwork noir The Killing, a quietly acclaimed picture which didn’t exactly embezzle the box office but did detonate that all so important cultural cache – a critical calling card displaying innovative skill and ambition, marking the 27-year-old as a new recruit with a career worth watching. Enter Kirk Douglas whom with his reconnaissance of promising young directors initiated a turbulent yet mutually beneficial two picture partnership, his seeking out a young, pliant yet talented director that he assumed he could manipulate around the set resulting in on-set combat and manoeuvres which have still not be satisfactorily resolved – we’ll get into that a little later. Although the relationship was tempestuous Douglas’s respect for Kubrick’s final devastating visual acuity, for his thematic marriage of image and message was enough to hire him for the Spartacus gig a year or so late, at that time the project was one of the biggest Hollywood productions in history, so this wasn’t a bad promotion for the barely 30-year-old who would find himself directing theatrical titans Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton. I’ve never read Kirk’s autobiography The Ragman’s Son which is an oversight I really should correct in order to see just how he recalls his collaborations with Kubrick (not to mention the other fantastic films he was in, with Ace In The Hole, Out of The Past, The Vikings to name just three), although I’m sure there is a sense of grudging respect as this film remains one of the key appearances of his long and distinguished career, with his portrayal of the fundamentally decent Colonel Dax grappling with the reprehensible sneers of the vain glorious military hierarchy being one of those star building struts, the protagonist as the moral authority of the audience, coaxing them through a bewildering battlefield.
Based on a true incident culled from the novel by Humphrey Cobb and illuminatingly banned in France for over thirty years – we all know if a government outright bans a picture then it’s gonna be good – Paths Of Glory is a choking descent into a turgid quagmire, of human civilisation being perverted by the emotional hubris of the upper class, of capricious sacrifice polluting those hollow human constructs of honour and duty in the face of insane and indiscriminate slaughter. General Dax is a junior level officer whom is respected by his men due to his even-handed treatment and willingness to lead them into mortal battle, but the superior echelons of the division General Mireau (A blusteringly imperious George Macready) and the more suave and poisonous Major General Broulard (an acute Adolphe Menjou) are career officers aligned with all the constitutional callousness of the upper class, a sense of moral and intellectual superiority and a shameless disregard for the inferior subjects beneath them. After his men refuse to conduct a suicidal, direct machine gun roaring charge on a heavily fortified position three of Colonel Dax’s men (including the great Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkell) are selected as cowardly examples and sentenced to death by firing squad, resulting in a second act legal courtroom melee where Kubrick fully exposes the insanity of the military hierarchy, marking this as an early assault on some of the same radioactive territory that Dr. Strangelove nuked a mere six years later.
It’s obvious that the BFI have commissioned this digital polish in tandem with the centenary of the First World War, an acute restoration of organisational, devolved hubris, of nationalistic pride and a blinkered moral superiority which recent events have thrown into a desert blasted relief – this film’s camouflaged criticism echoes louder than one mere global conflagration from the last millennium. With Kubrick’s screenwriting partners Calder Willingham and the savage noir wordsmith Jim Thompson the film treats the corpse choked trenches as a fulcrum to craft an emotional purity, glimmering within the overwhelming military structural insanity, a moral shriek which is drowned out by the sonic avalanche of munitions raining down with their ceaseless metallic drone. To begin with the simple form and craft of the storytelling technically this film was a monochrome tour-de force, the prowling camera rendering the trenches as a palpable Gehenna not seen on-screen before, incrementally pulling the audience into the warfare and claustrophobic diagetic space – the first full iteration of Kubricks trademark tracking shot technique. As the film punches the gut then the head the cinema style follows a precision engineered duopoly, as that grim intimacy is broken when we are hurled over the top and the emphasis switches to a detached deep focus panorama, with planned ‘kill-zones’ that Kubrick’s special effects artists grid-rigged with explosives to massacre the harshly drilled German army military extras – it’s quite a spectacle;
The compositions and controlled camera movements are astounding for the period, relentless in its tempo and the chaos bursting throughout the frames, an evident huge influence on the cinema spectacle of war and battle which found its most recent apogee with Spielberg’s storming of the Normandy beaches which was similarly celebrated this month, not to mention the almost identical homage seen here.
In chrysalis form you can detect many of Stanley’s musings and obsessions which over-run the latter work, while The Killing has something of that detached and impersonal assemblage associated with all things Kubrickian that emphasis on the tarnished notions of a social and civilising infrastructure finds it’s first victorious purchase in Paths Of Glory. With an aseptic assurance the subjects of the film are dissected and dissembled with the meticulously cold and calculating rigour of a celluloid field-surgeon, exposing the fragile hypocrisy and infallible idiocy of our venerable institutions, in this case the military hierarchy where privileged officers dine in impeccable opulent surroundings, discussing their campaigns with the studious detachment of superiors moving pieces around a chessboard. This cuts and contests cruelly with the lower class grunts and infantry choking, bleeding and screaming in the mud, blasted to smithereens by the relentless insanity inducing shelling, or torn to pieces by the relentless metallic bark of an almost bureaucratic machine gun fire. The compositions frame the doomed servicemen as flies trapped in a patriotic amber, literally moved as chess pieces across the checkerboard floor of General Mireaus carefully production designed château, with any pleas for clemency or jejune justice falling on the deaf unyielding ears of the implacable governmental majority. That said it’s certainly more heart on its sleeve than Stanley’s increasingly frigid statements to come, with more devoted characterisation to the unfortunate trio which emphatically pays off when their unavoidable fate finally falls. General Dax as an ambitious career officer struggles with the twin imperatives of his own social aspirations and decent moral horror, marking Paths of Glory as more manipulatively emotional than Kubrick’s later work which moved abstractly toward observing and recording broad, immaterial and ethereal queries on intelligence, of submerged sexual desire and social fidelity, of the family unit, of social control and ambition.
Some of the stories recanted by Douglas claim that he was horrified when Stanley approached him with a rewritten ‘happy’ ending to the picture in which the condemned are blessed with a last-minute pardon – the very definition of the Hollywood pandering cliché – as Kubrick apparently blanched at the massacred box-office potential of a war-picture ending on such a realistic downer. This would of course disrupt the entire films carefully calibrated nerve centre of shock and outrage, whilst I’ve always maintained that Kubrick always had a very keen eye on the commercial prospects of his movies I doubt this was ever a serious consideration, as movies are constantly revised through their lengthy production phases as new avenues of narrative are explored and rejected. As for the rest of the cast Kubrick selected character actors to support his central understanding of star presence box-office draw, with a few true cult favourites appearing in this picture. Firstly we have Ralph Meeker as one of the three cursed souls, his crushed demeanour being employed a few years earlier as the grizzled Mike Hammer in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Timothy Carey is a real cinephile figure, a notoriously difficult spirit he worked with Cassavettes in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie as well as appearing in The Killing, although Kubrick finally fired him from this movie after one transgression to far. Joe Turkell was hired by Kubrick again a mere 22 years later as the worlds best bartender from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon, he’s also best known as the Pharoah Tyrell in Blade Runner – the film quiz question par excellence should anyone ask you for two connections between that film and The Shining. So I think that assembly frog marches us to the final scene of the film and a crucial moment in Kubrick lore, as it not only introduces us to Christiane Harlan whom would soon become the third and final Mrs. Kubrick, but it was also this sequence with its humanist restoration that provides an odd aftertaste to the previous carnivore cruelty. On the night of Kubrick’s death, when the news had reached LA this is what Spielberg screened for his dinner party guests out of Stanley’s entire oeuvre as a tribute to one of the greatest film directors in the mediums history, apparently not always that cold and mechanical logician of lore;