04 November 2010
Generally when a film is anti-war and anti-military it accidentally (or at least incidentally) becomes a film which is half war-porn, which is either too concerned with being "fair to both sides of the argument" or simply shows too much bravery and valor and so-called heroism. Either way, the result is often a film which too easily can be seen as pro-war by anyone hoping to see such a thing. But Paths of Glory is much less equivocal about it. This is a film that depicts authority as distanced, amoral and petty, and doesn't leave much wiggle room to see it as anything else. Generals are self-serving and interested only in the prestige of victory, in what it will do for their careers and reputations. The death of their subordinates is shown (in the least uncertain terms I've ever seen) as registering no more guilt or difficulty than the loss of supplies, or fuel, or time.
The drama of the story is strong, anchored by Kirk Douglas and a sharp script. To be honest, not every performer lived up to the material, but it's always easier to forgive that in a movie over fifty years old (it was a different era, etc., etc.) and anyway it's not nearly enough to drag down this film. Plus, the film is deceptively short! Maybe I'm just used to grander pieces by Kubrick, but I expected more from the first trial... and when I didn't get it I naturally assumed the greater story would be the second trial, of the general whose glory-seeking traitorous orders set the story in motion. But no, once Colonel Dax tells off the Major General the story has a quick and beautifully abstract (that is, tangential to the direct plot but resonating on a deeper level to what we've seen and what we know) closing scene, and it's done. In and out in under 90 minutes.
But there's something great about that. Because really, by that point it's said all it has to say. It didn't really wrap up all its threads in a cathartic-resolution way, but each story got enough that I'm not left wondering what next. It didn't overstay its welcome because the message is a little more poetic if it's left unspelled-out, the occasional loose end or raw nerve only making the sting a bit sharper.
And as a side note, just before watching this I'd asked a friend if he could think of any repeat performer in a Kubrick film besides Kirk Douglas. There must be other examples as well, but right here in Paths of Glory, as the outspoken, too-smart-to-be-a-soldier Private Arnaud, is Joe ("Joseph") Turkel, a.k.a. Lloyd the bartender from The Shining, also familiar to film nerds (like me) as Eldon Tyrell, the proto-Jobs/Gates-hybrid CEO/Father/God from Blade Runner -- so young!