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Friday, September 02, 2016

Paths of Glory

This week's Kirk Douglas movie is one his finest, 1957's Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick. It is an anti-war film, but told strictly from the point of the view of the soldier, not the protestor. It paints the command structure, as most hierarchies are, as victim to watching one's ass.

Set during the trench warfare of World War I, the film begins with one general (Adolphe Menjou) asking another (George Macready) to make an attempt to take Ant Hill, held by the Germans. Macready thinks it's impossible, but Menjou knows how to massage Macready's ego to get him to do it, even though the cost will be bloody. Menjou is being pressured by politicians and the press to break the stalemate.

Macready relies on Colonel Dax (Douglas) to lead the attack, Douglas also knows it's suicidal, but Macready threatens to put him on R&R if he doesn't do it. His pride wounded, Douglas agrees, knowing his men have proved themselves over and over.

The attack is a failure, and one entire division doesn't even leave the trench. Outraged, Macready wants to use the "decimation" system, that is taking one out of every ten men in the division, and executing them for cowardice. He is argued down to just trying three men. Douglas, disgusted, defends the three in court.

What is most impressive about Paths of Glory is Kubrick's use of the camera. In the opening scene, which is in Macready's office, which looks like a ballroom, the camera is mostly static while the men circle the room, almost as if they are dancing. He also, with cinematographer George Krause, makes us feel the claustrophobia of the trenches, and the sense of doom. Early in the film two soldiers discuss the best and worst ways to die, pretty much knowing that's what's going to happen to them.

The courtroom scene is also brilliantly staged. The three defendants are placed in single chairs, with no tables, in front of a panel that looks like an inquisition. Douglas is off to the side, shown as being almost on the periphery, as his every attempt is swatted away by judges that have already made up their minds.

Another thing about Paths of Glory is that it is only about 90 minutes long. A remake today would probably add an hour to it. The economy of scenes is stunning--instead of the court announcing the verdict, there is a cut to the sergeant explaining to his charges how the firing squad will work, and we slowly gulp and realize that the verdict was guilty.

Macready makes a great villain, and Ralph Meeker, earlier Mike Hammer, is great as a corporal who is chosen for execution by a weak-willed lieutenant. Douglas, of course, is solid, and gets to deliver one line in his customary way: he tells Menjou, who has just offered him a promotion, "you're a sick, degenerate old man!" Nobody could say a line like that better than Douglas.

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