The futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack. Written by
Keith Loh <firstname.lastname@example.org>
After Gen. Mireau slaps the soldier in the trench, he continues on to Col. Dax's dugout and three soldiers carrying a machine gun pass him. The same three soldiers still with the machine gun pass him again when he and Dax are looking at the Ant Hill through the binoculars. See more »
Narrator of opening sequence:
War began between Germany and France on August 3rd 1914. Five weeks later the German army had smashed its way to within eighteen miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River and in a series of unexpected counterattacks drove the Germans back. The front was stabilized then shortly afterwards developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss ...
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"Paths of Glory" (1957) (and this is personal opinion of course) is Stanley Kubrick's first real masterpiece in what would be a long line of subsequent masterpieces. I know that Kubrick had a reputation for making cold, unemotional films (which is a false impression, but that's the subject for another essay) but I don't believe there are many people who can deny how powerful this film is. Through the editing, camera movement, incredibly realistic dialogue, and a now more fully realized use of irony, Kubrick creates an unforgettable anti-war parable. I realize that my love for this film is incredibly obvious, but I'll try to focus on an analysis of the film rather than a review, but the movie is just so good!
Francois Truffaut once said that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film because the battle scenes make the war look exiting. "Paths of Glory"'s scenes of battle are certainly gripping, but gripping in the way that a nightmare is gripping. There is no way a person can see these scenes and wish they were participating (like the action scenes in say, "The Dirty Dozen"). I vividly recall the scene where three men try to sneak behind enemy lines in the middle of the night. The battlefield is cloaked in darkness. Someone shoots a flare. Silently, a brief burst of light illuminates the field, revealing several corpses strewn over the ground. Darkness quickly covers them up again. Kubrick uses silence and sparse sound effects in this scene like a musical score. Any actual music would be intrusive and rob from the moment, a flaw found in too many otherwise good films of the nineteen fifties (personal opinion of course).
Point of view is used very well in the film to illustrate the inner concerns of the major characters. We see General Mireau's Point of view when he looks through the binoculars at the ant-hill he wants his men to take. When he hands over the binoculars to Colonel Dax, we don't see his view of the ant-hill. Later however, when Dax walks through the trenches before the big battle, we do see his point of view looking at his men. This contrasts with an earlier scene when Mireau walked through the trenches and we did not see his point of view. This clearly illustrates what is important to each man. For Mireau, it is victory at all costs; for Dax, it is the welfare of his soldiers.
For me one of the most impressive things about "Paths of Glory" was it's realistic, yet still poetic, and sometimes even chilling dialogue. This is in sharp contrast to the clever yet purposefuly stagy dialogue of "The Killing".
One scene sticks out my mind where a soldier is nervously rambling about what it would be like to get shot: "Most guys say that if they got shot they'd want to die quick. So what does that tell you? It means there not afraid of getting killed, they're afraid of getting hurt. I think if you're gonna get shot and live, it's best to get shot in the rear than in the head. Why? Because in the rear its just meat, but the head, that's pure bone. Can you imagine what it's like for a bullet to rip through pure bone?" When I first saw this film in a theater, there was some nervous laughter in the audience during this scene. It's true, the scene's dark humour helps illustrate the insanity of the situation.
In my introduction I stated that there was great use of irony in the film. Perhaps the greatest irony is the title. In the end no one finds glory. Dax, although he nobly fights to defend his men wrongly accused of treason, loses the fight. Even though he is later offered a promotion, he turns it down because of his disgust for the army. Mireau is found out to be the cad that he is for ordering his own troops slaughter, and is court marshalled. The film successfully states that in a war even the supposed victors lose something as well.
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