Peace Is Our Profession. Notes On Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory.
I first saw Paths Of Glory some fifteen years ago. Half a lifetime away now, the film was taken in alongside it’s brethren in the Stanley Kubrick oeuvre, with the whole catalogue, sans-Fear And Desire of course, no doubt consumed in but a matter of days. One might cautiously suggest that something of the subtlety and slightness of Paths Of Glory might be lost when viewed in quick succession next to some of it’s flashier siblings, but it’s arguably the one that lingers the longest. The one thing that really struck me, nay clung to me, upon that first viewing was the ending. While a pair of codas lighten the mood somewhat the film’s spiritual climax is as dark as they ever came out of Hollywood, and it remains just as affecting all these years on.
The film’s stylistic code impresses too, with the stark photography, more often than not raised against either the surreal backdrop of a grand French palace or the “war is hell” trenches of the First World War, carrying with it an air of conviction, both aesthetically and politically that one not might ordinarily associate with a filmmaker with just three feature films under his belt. It’s an unusual setting of a palace habituated by generals, where the politics of combat are decided and the mythos of war is written. A wrongheaded sense of nobility and righteousness trumps actual human feeling, with vast halls filled with vast paintings making for the most beautiful of compositions for housing the ugly bureaucracy of organised conflict. In ways, the film’s court scene and last act recalls the work of Carl Th. Dreyer, if only in its aesthetic structure (though it might be suggested that there’s a spirituality here too). The lavish splendour of the palace soon gives way to the cramp and filth of the trench, a location for which Kubrick’s camera was seemingly born to capture. It’s a remarkably confident piece of work for such an early feature: he arrived almost fully formed.
It’s apt then, that ‘ambition’ is perhaps the overriding theme of Paths Of Glory, the most ironic of titles. The promise of power corrupts men who know better, on every level of authority. The one glimmer of hope in there is Colonel Dax, played with chiseled authority by Kirk Douglas. Douglas is an odd frontman at the best of times, with a weighty sense of cynicism almost always handily attached. This is the kind of role you could imagine Hollywood unwisely resurrecting with a smattering of schmaltz for Clooney or Hanks, while one could easily imagine Jimmy Stewart (before Hitchcock got his hands on him) playing Dax in some alternate universe happy ending take on the film. In Douglas though the character has a capable handler, a man wizened to the frailty of the system, who can do nothing but sit by and accept the glee that adorns the prosecutors faces as they lay out execution orders on men they know not worthy of them, knowing that nothing he can do can change any of this. The higher ups play the regular man like a boardgame, with dungeon master General Mireau sat in a chaise longues like he’s overseeing some kind of Roman amphitheatre, laconic and pleasured. It’s a War Room situation as ridiculous as that of Dr. Strangelove. There’s no redemption moment for Colonel Dax, no Mr. Smith Goes To Washington filibuster. These men, both those on trial and those paying sentence have their fates.
This sense of inevitability runs through the picture. Solid-gold dialogue blends Hollywood with pure nihilism. Hardboiled pulp author Jim Thompson was drafted in to work on the script, and it shows. “I’m not afraid of dying tomorrow, only getting killed” says one man on the eve of the suicide mission that stands at the centre of the movie, while “The men died wonderfully” is amongst the vocal refrains that see out Paths Of Glory, leaving a bitter and long-lasting aftertaste for this greatest of anti-war pictures.