Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Paths of Glory

Anyone who thinks Stanley Kubrick's films are too cold and emotionless should see this one. It's a gritty and uncompromising war film, probably one of the first to actually depict war as the awful thing it really is. It's not very long, and really there's only one actual battle, because that's not really what the movie's about. It's about the French army during WWI, and after they fail to take a hill from Germany, the general in charge is out for blood and starts a witch hunt to root out the cowardice that he believes caused the mission to go wrong. It's quite stark how heartless he is, dismissing soldiers for not wanting to fight and claiming there is no such thing as shell shock. He treats his soldiers not as people but as tools to accomplish tasks, and is disappointed when he has to settle for only three troops in his trumped up court martial.

Kirk Douglas is the hero, the good-hearted colonel in command of the troops who failed, and who tries to protect them from the general's bloodlust. The movie is less about the fight on the front and more about the trial and its aftermath. As you can probably guess in this kind of movie, things don't go as pleasantly as we might like, and the climax is one of the most unflinching and brutal scenes I've ever seen in a movie, despite the lack of explicit violence. The juxtaposition between the harsh reality of the front line and the carefree way the general and his superior discuss it is pretty alarming, especially at the end after the trial's conclusion. The final scene featuring Kubrick's future wife singing in German while the French soldiers take what few minutes they can to not worry about being killed is powerful without needing words to explain itself, and while it's not my favorite of his films, it may be the most affecting. Impressive stuff.

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