We’ve been on a spate of tributes all this month. First, it was a farewell for Dev Anand, the man who embodied ‘leading man’ for so many Indians across generations. Then, there were birthdays – for the ‘hunkiest of them all’, Dharmendra, and then for one of Hindi cinema’s greatest thespians, Dilip Kumar. Somewhere amidst all those tributes, another great birthday got left out. Kirk Douglas turned 95 on December 9, 2011. So, here’s wishing Mr Douglas a (rather belated) happy birthday, and here’s looking at one of his best-known films.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Paths of Glory is set in France, in 1916. World War I, of course, is raging. The French armies have pushed back the Germans at the Marne, and there seems to be a stalemate. Against this backdrop, there’s an important, but discreet, private meeting between General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Paul Mireau (George Macready). Orders have trickled down from the powers that be: a certain section of the front – known as the ‘Ant Hill’ – must be wrested back from the German armies that currently hold it.
General Mireau says it’s out of the question. His division has been decimated to the point where they’re in no position to hold the Ant Hill, let alone take it. But Broulard insists; they have no option. He also dangles a carrot: get the Ant Hill, and Mireau will be promoted. Another star, a place in the prestigious 12th Corps.
So Mireau goes off on a tour of the trenches held by the regiment that will be attacking the Ant Hill. The regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), when General Mireau breaks the news to him, is stunned. It will be pure suicide, he knows. The Germans are too deeply entrenched and command the Ant Hill too well.
General Mireau doesn’t listen. These are soldiers, he says. Men. Patriots. If one dies, if ten die, if a hundred die, a thousand – they are dying for the honour and glory of their country. That is their job, their duty.
Dax’s regiment, ordered to move out of its trenches in three successive waves, will set out at dawn. Reinforcements will probably arrive by about sunset, so Dax’s regiment will have to hold the Ant Hill (if they can capture it in the first place) from dawn to dusk.
All Dax’s appeals, whether based on rationale or simple humanity – you can’t send men out to a sure death – fail. General Mireau has a mandate: the Ant Hill must be won.
As expected, it is a long night for Dax and his men. But morning comes, and Dax – as per orders – leads his men out, swarming over the trenches, past the barbed wire that marks the French line, out into no man’s land. There’s mud, water, blood, the pounding of guns raining shell down on the men. General Mireau (who, as Dax has been told, will be ‘personally observing the attack’) is safely ensconced in a bunker far away, with a nice warming bottle of cognac and a pair of binoculars to watch the action.
It is from this vantage point that Mireau sees that there are still crowds of French soldiers in their own trenches. They’re not moving out. Not going into battle. Cowards, all.
Mireau gets so angry that he immediately has a wireless message sent to the captain in charge of the battery on a nearby hill, to fire at the trenches. “On our own men?” the captain asks in disbelief. Yes, bellows the general. And repeats it on the phone when the captain refuses to accept that the general could have given such an order.
In the meantime, on the ground, a large part of Dax’s regiment is still – as Mireau had seen – in its own trenches. That’s because their comrades, the ones who were in the first assault, have already been mostly killed or wounded. Dax, who’s managed to get back into the trench, tries to lead another assault up, but is pushed back. The shellfire above the trenches makes it impossible to even try to climb out.
So, at the end of the day, the Ant Hill remains with the Germans. And an enraged General Mireau decides that the only way to wash away this ‘taint on the French army’ is to make an example. He begins by suggesting to General Broulard that ten men from each company of Dax’s regiment should be court-martialled and executed.
Dax tries to reason with him. When that doesn’t succeed, Dax puts forward his own name – after all, as commanding officer of the regiment, Dax is the one most responsible for any cowardice that his regiment might have exhibited.
Nothing Dax says is heard; but Mireau finally makes a concession: okay, not ten men each, just one man each. Dax also manages to corner Mireau into letting him, Dax, be the counsel for the defence for the three men on trial.
No, this isn’t a story of whether or not Dax will be able to save his men from being victimised by Mireau. It isn’t a courtroom drama. It is not even, as so many people call it, one of the ‘best war films ever made’: the war, with its guns and trenches and death, disappears pretty much into the background after that suicidal assault on the Ant Hill. Instead, there’s General Broulard, hosting a dinner and dance on the night of the court martial.
There’s General Mireau, looking as if he doesn’t have a thing on his conscience, enjoying the evening. There’s music and laughter and relaxed conversation… and three innocent men facing death.
Yes, Paths of Glory is set against the backdrop of war, but (like High Noon) this is another story that could have been played out in a setting of any conflict: the corporate world, for example. Or gang wars on the streets. It is, all said and done, a story of human emotions: ambition, greed, hypocrisy, fear (of death, of disgrace, and so much more) – and, perhaps, of hope too.
And, like High Noon, this is a story that is universal. To hide his own inadequacies, a powerful and ambitious man picks a scapegoat – and ruthlessly sets out to ensure that, come what may, his will will prevail. Taking on the task of thwarting this tyrant is a man who’s risking his career, possibly even his own life, because he cannot see the gross injustice that seems certain to prevail.
Caught between the two, their lives hanging in the balance, are the three condemned men. Men who are powerless; who must wait around and see what happens. Men who know they may not have another 24 hours to live.
What I liked about this film:
For me a good film (or a good book, for that matter) is one that either makes me think, or arouses a lot of emotion in me – or both. I watched most of Paths of Glory simmering with anger, because the story unfolding onscreen was just so brutally cruel, so unjust. And while that is to a large extent due to the superb acting (of George Macready as General Mireau, in particular) it is Kubrick’s direction that makes that happen.
There is, for instance, the mere fact that Paths of Glory is shot, not in colour – which was common by then – but in black and white. This may have been because of budgetary constraints, but the result fits the theme perfectly: gloomy, dark, so much like actual footage of the Great War.
Another example: a detail that shows just how ambitious Mireau is, how fervently he believes that morale must be kept up. When he visits the trenches to tell Dax about the impending assault on the Ant Hill, Mireau walks through the trenches, stopping after every few turns to talk to one of the soldiers on duty. (In an aside, he explains to the major accompanying him that talking to the soldiers raises their morale). To each soldier, Mireau’s words are the same: “Hullo there, soldier… Ready to kill more Germans?… Are you married, soldier?…” and so on.
Finding himself faced with a shell-shocked soldier who simply, stupidly, repeats the general’s questions back at him, the general’s only reaction is to knock the man unconscious and scream at the sergeant: “Get that baby transferred out of my regiment! I don’t want my brave men contaminated by him!”
And just as Mireau turns a blind eye to reality, so do some of his subordinates. The sycophantic major who accompanies him through the trenches says, “You know, general, I think these tours of yours have an incalculable effect on the morale of these men.”
What can I say? Watch Paths of Glory for yourself. It is an amazing, unforgettable film.
(As you can see, I’m skipping the ‘What I didn’t like’ section, because I couldn’t think of anything to write there).
Paths of Glory was not allowed to be released in France till 1975, because it was considered – by many military officers in France – to show the French army in a bad light. In Spain, too, Franco’s regime did not allow the film to be released because it portrayed a negative image of the military.
The title of the film is taken from Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Which actually sums up the film perfectly.