Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Paths of Glory

Someone once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film because film, with it's explosions and choreography and whatnot, always makes war look fun. Evidently that person wasn't well versed in cinema, since there is a pretty clear example of how to keep explosions and battles and make war look anything but fun. Paths to Glory accomplishes the feat even with a big battle and enough explosions to make the German government suspicious during filming.

The trick is that most of the film is about the politics surrounding war, and what it can do to relatively innocent soldiers. The entire piece revolves around Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready), a general who desires a promotion and glory, who places his ego above the lives of soldiers. When Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) proposes a plan to take a location known as the Anthill, Mireau initially refuses, before he gets proposed some personal gain. Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), in command of the regiment, is forced to follow the order, and the battle goes predictably badly, leading to a kangaroo court martial and general unpleasantness.

From the beginning, it's reinforced that there is a disconnect between command and the soldiers on the front, as command happens in a conspicuously shiny castle while the actual battle takes place in the dirty trenches - often captured in claustrophobic but frankly brilliant tracking shots. The contrast is made as conspicuous as possible, and the generals are made to be especially out of place during battle. The battles themselves don't actually show much success on the part of the army either, consisting mostly of slow crawls, intimidating explosions and lots of dead bodies. It strategically removes everything that could possibly be considered fun about war, replacing it with the ever-present specter of death.

That not scare you away from war yet? How about almost all leadership being shown as willing to destroy the men under them to protect their own reputation? Dax is shown to be an idealist and mostly honorable, and Macready seems to have grown a mustache solely to twirl it, but those are the two extremes of film. Within, there are many more subtle ways of murder in the service of ass covering, from the explicit - everything Mireau does - to the subtle - a character marked down as dead after his commander runs away from a battle. Even soldiers who are brave and exemplary in battle are screwed over just to ensure a general's ass is appropriately covered, just to emphasize that if the battles don't get you, the commanders will.

Of course, this is no surprise, since Stanley Kubrick is behind the camera and the man was an insane genius. Nobody lights a scene like Kubrick, and there is an execution that is almost unbearably tense and seems to taunt the viewer for having compassion. The film manipulates you completely with how it's shot, with only the rare music cue for emphasis. It has nothing but sympathy for the main characters, and then kicks their ass for emphasis.

I'll agree that the majority of war films are not anti-war for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, but to say it is impossible is a lie. The trick is to stop yourself from making war look fun. Paths of Glory makes war look like what it is, violent and filled with death. That's a way to make it seem less appealing.

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