Saturday, 21 August 2010

I Humbly Beg You, Show Mercy To These Men.

In all my years, to never have watched Paths Of Glory. I can understand my reticence to pick up Barry Lyndon, it looking so unlike the Kubrick we all know and love, but to ignore his breakout film? The film that got him the Spartacus gig? Which in turn allowed him to go on to be possibly the greatest filmmaker to have lived? For shame. 

But now rectified!

Paths of Glory wasn't Kubrick's first feature (that honour belongs to either The Killing or Killer's Kiss, depending on whether you count the latter as a feature due to its run time - which in turn probably depends on the version you're watching), but it was his first to really make people sit up and take notice. I'm sure no small part of this is due to the casting of Kirk Douglas, who was just about to receive his third Oscar nomination in less than a decade - though not for this film.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the French military, commanding troops against the Germans in the First World War. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) to send his troops on what will effectively be a suicide mission to capture the strategically important Anthill. Mireau in turn orders Dax to take charge of this operation, having had his opinion swayed by the promise of promotion. Dax resists but eventually follows orders, leading his troops onto open ground where the majority are promptly slaughtered. Some troops even refuse to leave the trench, under such heavy fire that they know they will get nowhere, inspiring Mireau to order his artillery men to open fire on his own troops to inspire them to charge. The artillery men refuse without written orders (as is protocol), infuriating Mireau, who decides to execute 100 of them for treachery. Broulard manages to convince him that three would be enough, one from each company, to make an example.

The three are selected for various reasons - one to cover up a grave error by his superior; another because he is a 'social undesirable'; and a third just by pure bad luck, despite the fact that he is a valiant and courageous soldier. Dax, a lawyer in the civilian world and outraged by what is happening considering the suicidal mission they were all sent on, takes it upon himself to defend themselves in the court martial that is convened to try them. The court martial is a preposterous affair, however, and branded such by Dax, who fails to get the men off. Dax does repeatedly try, submitting further evidence to Broulard in order to try and sway for clemency, but he fails every step of the way. Ultimately, Broulard offers Dax the promotion he was going to give Mireau (after indicting Mireau for the order to attack his own men), prompting Dax to violently challenge Broulard on his assertion that this was all in order to move up the ranks - Dax has always had his men's best interest at heart, and is disgusted by any inference to the contrary.

It is a powerful premise and a terrifically executed story. Douglas is magnificently torn and conflicted, struggling with navigating his own best interests, those of his men, and how best to make his way through the intricate labyrinth of the hierarchy of military life. He knows it is unfair, but he also knows kicking and screaming means nothing in the army. If proper protocol isn't followed you may as well just hand yourself over for a misconduct charge.

Menjou, Macready and the entire support cast perform very well. The three men on trial present entirely opposite faces to the world, perfectly matched to provide a snapshot of human nature in the microcosm of an army jail, and  played wonderfully. 

Shot in and around Germany, with Americans playing French military, it is a little discombobulating to watch at times, but a little suspension of disbelief allows you to fall into the world Kubrick has created. Maybe not entirely, but as discussed before (here, here and here), he never truly lets you fully into the sphere of the film, instead too happy to keep this world at arm's length from the audience. In this world the maestro is unafraid to show off the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks - the faces, the tracking shots, the thematic struggles - all in the wonderfully constructed world of trench warfare and palatial court-martials. 

A riveting film in every way, Kubrick did more than make his mark with this film - he shouted to the world that he is here, and he is not going to stop. And thank god for that. 5 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment