Friday, 10 May 2019

Kubism, Part 4:
Paths Of Glory (1957)

Act I of Stanley Kubrick's career is complete: over the course of three shorts and three features we've seen him grow from pretentious faux-intellectual with a keen eye into an accomplished storyteller with an even keener eye. It hasn't always been easy viewing (I refer you, once again, to The Seafarers), but the upward trajectory in quality has at least formed the kind of narrative arc every traditional first act follows. Now, though, it's time to get serious. Paths Of Glory is, objectively, The Kube's first masterpiece: a film that tears the insanity of war a new asshole, dives into that asshole to examine the very rectum of humanity, and emerges caked in the shit of man's most unspeakable behaviour towards his fellow man. I hope it washed its hands.
Things begin with the ever-present (but, this time, mercifully brief) Kubrickian voiceover filling us in on the current state of affairs: it's France, 1916, there's a war happening, and it's not going well for anyone. In the first of several chess references that pepper the film, we discover there's a stalemate situation between the French and German forces, it's nil-nil with everything to play for and both teams are snookered (it's possible I don't fully understand chess). Pompous old twat General Broulard convinces weaselly turd General Mireau that if his men can take a German stronghold known as the Ant Hill - which both men acknowledge is a logistically unachievable task - there might be a tasty promotion in it for him, setting in motion a chain of events that made me so fucking cross about how awful people can be that I immediately tore up my application for the job of high-ranking military officer in a time of horrific global conflict. The hours were rubbish anyway so they can whistle.

Passing the buck as quickly as he can, Mireau assigns the job of taking the Ant Hill (renamed from "the Pimple" in the original novel: both names reflecting the cosmic insignificance Kubrick loved to assign his characters' efforts to control forces beyond their comprehension) to Colonel Dax and his Impossible Missions Force - basically a platoon of knackered soldiers with little to no clue about why they're there or what they're doing. Dax, one of precious few heroic characters in the Kubrick canon, is played by Kirk Douglas and is therefore carved from solid granite; an anchor of decency in a sea of madness and abandoned morality. Like every other Frenchman in Paths Of Glory he also speaks with a broad American accent, which is offputting to begin with, but once you fully appreciate, like, the universality of the film's themes, man, you begin to respect Kubrick's decision not to ask the cast to go all 'Allo 'Allo.
By this time we've descended from Broulard's opulent chateau to Dax's sewer-like trenches, giving Kubrick the perfect excuse to literally roll out some stunning tracking shots through the carved-out scars in the earth that pass for Dax's workplace. Not only do these shots look incredible, prefiguring 2001's hamstery jogging wheel scene and the corridors of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, but they also lend a sense of doomed inevitability to the soldiers' journey: where Kubrick's camera followed Broulard and Mireau's flamboyant dancing stroll around the chateau, that freedom of movement is entirely absent from the linearity that, by design, characterises the trenches.

Over the top the Ant Hill Mob go, then, with Kubrick unleashing hell in a spectacular three-minute scene that sees Dax, centre frame at all times, lead the charge across No Man's Land. This is the opening-of-Saving-Private-Ryan of its day, and still has the power to drop jaws over six decades later. It's an incredible display of acting, directing and editing, part Hollywood epic and part documentary realism, with extras flailing about all around Douglas while Stan crash zooms into his lead's grimacing face, fixed in grim determination as it's spattered in blood and dirt.
The assault, unsurprisingly, is a disaster, the platoon sensibly scurries back to the trenches rather than risk having their bits blown off, and General Mireau naturally decides to court martial three random soldiers for cowardice as an example to the rest of the army. What has up until now been a thundering war film transforms unexpectedly into a thundering courtroom drama, with the unstoppable force of Colonel Dax (who, as a civilian, was conveniently the "foremost criminal lawyer in all of France") meeting the immovable object of military pig-headedness as he struggles to defend his men in a shambolic kangaroo court. Kubrick's effortless swinging between genres would be a trope of his later career, but it's easy to forget that here he seamlessly blends two narrative archetypes into the same film.

The trial is just as harrowing to watch as the earlier scenes on the battlefield, with the script wringing the maximum amount of hear-tearing frustration out of the army's total failure of common decency and Kubrick repeatedly placing his camera in the absolute perfect spot to tell his story. The dialogue here is glorious (Dax's closing argument, in which he professes his shame at being a member of the human race, is chilling), but if you muted the volume you'd still know exactly what's going down - specifically the three soldiers, sentenced to death by firing squad. Kubrick goes on to tease steel cables of tension out of the run-up to the execution (the constant drum roll is no help for those with high blood pressure), with the chance of a reprieve dangled in front of the viewer like a lifebuoy, and he plays with audience expectation with all the mercy of a bored cat pawing at a terrified mouse.
In the event that you've got this far but haven't seen Paths Of Glory I won't spoil the remainder of the film, except to say that it doesn't have much more to say in the way of positive appraisals of humanity in wartime; if there's a moral to the story, it's the survival of the shittest. This is arguably Kubrick's first fully-formed plunge into his characters' psyches: while his previous films were largely populated with cyphers employed to operate the machinery of their respective plots, the men (and woman) of Paths Of Glory are conduits for some searing psychological evaluation. Look at the convicted soldiers' responses to the verdict of their court martial, for example: incarcerated in the chateau's stables, treated like animals and stripped of their dignity, one turns to God, one to booze and the other falls apart in the face of a total absence of reason. Look at the smiling photographer who snaps them on their way to the firing squad. And look at Dax's reaction in the final scene, as he realises the men he's been trying to save are as "degenerate" as the men who send them to certain death - before, thanks to the future Mrs Kubrick's appearance as a terrified German girl, the soldiers reveal an appreciation of life and beauty that offers a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity.

And let's not forget Kubrick's continual development as a composer of actual works of art on screen. On the one hand obsessed with detail and authenticity, then on the other concocting a five-second theatrically operatic horror in which a nighttime wide shot of No Man's Land is suddenly illuminated by a flare, revealing mangled corpses that were hidden by the darkness, Stan truly finds his visual groove here. He may be schooling us on the worst aspects of mankind, the futility of honour in the face of cold ambition and the travesties of justice that are meted out in the name of patriotism, but at least he's making it look fucking horrific while he's doing it.
Join me again soon for more of Captain Kirk in Spartacus, the story of the slightly-above-average hero of Lazy Town and his quest to get the slaves of ancient Rome to eat more fruit and veg.


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