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Paths of Glory (1957)


Persona
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No thread on this? Huh. Links to our threads on The Killing (1956), Spartacus (1960), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Link to Jeremy Purves' excellent blurb in the Top 100, where you'll actually get more info on the film itself than in the starter post here.

I saw Paths of Glory for the first and second time in the past week and was taken with quite a few things, the most obvious of which is the story itself, the conflict in morality between the troop’s leadership. But perhaps not as noticeable as the story, which is so incredibly tense, is the way the film is shot. I would imagine the film is a standard in film classes in regard to the long tracking shots, no?

The first one is in the trenches, several minutes long, with the camera traveling backwards and two men walking toward us. Later, in a battle scene, the camera moves with the troops as they try to take the Ant Hill, right to left, explosions and men being shot everywhere, it just goes on and on and on. An amazing war scene that I’d love to see on the big screen. If I ever get the chance I won’t pass it up. There are other tracking shots, too, but not quite as long, until we reach one of the final scenes where the camera travels backwards while the three condemned men walk toward us, toward a firing squad which we can’t see. All three that I’ve mentioned are incredibly long, drawn out shots, that, I don’t know what they do for the story itself but if anything at all, they are incredibly cool.

It’s a great film and I can see why many here have championed it. I can see why it is on the list. But I also watched Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) in the same week… I think each film has masterful moments, but I’d probably rank Full Metal Jacket higher at this point. That is, if I could rank only the first half of Full Metal Jacket, I guess.

I wonder how Kubrick lovers (I guess Ryan, I think he might be the strongest Kubrick lover on the boards) think these two films fit into the overall canon of Kubrick. I honestly don't know the answer to this question - is he remembered for his war films at all? Or do those come secondary to films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange? Or is there division even among the fans as to which of his films are the greatest?

I have to admit that seeing both films has made me interested in revisiting Kubrick, since it has been more than a decade since I last investigated.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Kubrick was my gateway drug to hardcore cinephilia, but it's been quite a while since I watched most of his films. About a decade ago, I wrote decent essays about Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. They touch on two of your main points, Stef: the formal inventions in Paths and the (mistaken, I think) belief that the second half of Jacket doesn't live up to the promise of the first.

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and the (mistaken, I think) belief that the second half of Jacket doesn't live up to the promise of the first.

Oh, how cool is that. I just mentioned it and you wrote that I was wrong years ago. Love it! :) I am going to get to it as quickly as I can...

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Persona wrote:

: I wonder how Kubrick lovers . . . think these two films fit into the overall canon of Kubrick. I honestly don't know the answer to this question - is he remembered for his war films at all?

Oh, definitely. In fact, it's tempting at times to think that Kubrick was nothing BUT a war-movie director, thanks to these films but also to the extended military sequences in Spartacus and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick loved formal settings and situations, and there is something about soldiers marching in formation or massing for combat that really suited his sensibilities. Oh, and let's not forget that Dr. Strangelove is basically about war, albeit of a different sort.

As you may know, Kirk Douglas is on record as believing that Paths of Glory is the best film he ever starred in.

And if memory serves, I think Paths of Glory is the only Kubrick film they showed us in any of my film classes, and it's not hard to see why: It's one of the earlier, shorter Kubrick films (so it's easier to fit into the schedule); it's one of his oldest films (so it's got "historical" value; incidentally, I attended university off-and-on in '88-'97, between the release dates of Full Metal Jacket ('87) and Eyes Wide Shut ('99), so Kubrick was still a "current" filmmaker at that time); and it's got explicit political themes as well as the tracking shots that you noted (so it's got form and content to discuss).

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I wonder how Kubrick lovers (I guess Ryan, I think he might be the strongest Kubrick lover on the boards) think these two films fit into the overall canon of Kubrick. I honestly don't know the answer to this question - is he remembered for his war films at all? Or do those come secondary to films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange? Or is there division even among the fans as to which of his films are the greatest?

FULL METAL JACKET is generally considered weaker than PATHS OF GLORY, though it has its champions.

Me? I think FULL METAL JACKET is probably the weakest Kubrick flick, save for his earlier, less-remarkable features, like KILLER'S KISS and FEAR AND DESIRE. The first half of FULL METAL JACKET, which is so often acclaimed, has the great presence of R. Lee Ermey, but beyond that, it's nothing too special. Kubrick apparently thought that it would be good to use the same cartoonish portrait of insanity he used for Jack Torrance in THE SHINING as an example of what military training does to a human being, which doesn't work for me. And the second half is a set of aimless fragments that never add up to much, though using the "Mickey Mouse" theme to close the film is a pretty brilliant touch.

I rank PATHS OF GLORY as Kubrick's third-best feature, with 2001 and BARRY LYNDON taking the #1 and #2 spots, respectively. That said, I think I'm in the minority on that. Typically PATHS OF GLORY isn't given as much notice as, say, DR. STRANGELOVE or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Kubrick apparently thought that it would be good to use the same cartoonish portrait of insanity he used for Jack Torrance in THE SHINING as an example of what military training does to a human being, a missjudgment of significant proportions.

Agreed. The evil sneer was the point at which I began to lose interest, so perhaps it's not even the first half of the film I really liked. Might have only been the first half hour.

And the second half is a set of aimless fragments that never add up to much, though using the "Mickey Mouse" theme to close the film is a pretty brilliant touch.

I don't know if I understand why the "Micky Mouse" theme is brilliant. I think I felt the same way as you - "aimless fragments that never add up to much" - but it was made well and definitely kept me involved in it. I'm looking forward to reading Darren's article.

PATHS OF GLORY, on the other hand, I would rank as Kubrick's third-best feature, with 2001 and BARRY LYNDON taking the #1 and #2 spots, respectively. That said, I think I'm in the minority on that. Typically PATHS OF GLORY isn't given as much notice as, say, DR. STRANGELOVE or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

I've not seen Barry Lyndon or Dr. Strangelove, but I've been threatening to go back to Kubrick for a while now, and it feels like the time is getting closer.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I don't know if I understand why the "Micky Mouse" theme is brilliant.

It's always struck me as chilling, a dissonant final note that underlines the loss of innocence for these men. If nothing else, Kubrick has always known how to select music for his films.

I think I felt the same way as you - "aimless fragments that never add up to much" - but it was made well and definitely kept me involved in it.

Sure. I don't think FULL METAL JACKET is a bad film by any stretch.

I've not seen Barry Lyndon or Dr. Strangelove, but I've been threatening to go back to Kubrick for a while now, and it feels like the time is getting closer.

BARRY LYNDON is one of my all-time favorite films. STRANGELOVE is one of the most iconic comedies ever made, though I'm not as enamored with it as many people are.

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Question: When the camera rolls backwards like that and the men are advancing at us, as in the trenches and then in that firing squad scene, is that still considered a "tracking shot"? Just curious whether it's still called the same when it isn't on a kind of horizontal plane, as in the war scene.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 1 year later...

Saw this last night for the first time in years. Loved it, and loved noting some of the ways it ties into Kubrick's later films.

E.g., the priest (who, like almost everyone else, doesn't sound *remotely* French, or even European) does play a somewhat soothing, sympathetic role, and yet he's also compromised (as are Kirk Douglas and everyone else) just by virtue of the fact that he is part of "the system", and at one point he even refers to the injustice being perpetrated by the corrupt generals as "the will of God". This reminded me of the priest in A Clockwork Orange who takes a strong stand for free will (is it "free will" if someone is conditioned to experience pain whenever he contemplates doing something wrong?) yet also delivers brimstone-and-hellfire sermons that are precisely designed to appeal to the prisoners' fear of pain.

I was also struck by the repeated emphasis on death and the way it both makes our choices irrelevant and makes our choices relevant, depending on how you look at it. There's a scene where a soldier advises one of the soon-to-be-executed soldiers to stop cryi ng and man up, and he says something like, "This is the last decision you'll ever make. You can face the firing squad like a man, or you can go crying like a baby. Either way, it'll end the same." This reminded me of the closing title card in Barry Lyndon -- "They're all equal now" -- and the way death equalizes everything. And yet, the soon-to-be-executed soldier is motivated by the realization that, yes, this is in fact "the last decision" he will ever make -- so he acts as though his death is making his choice more meaningful, in a way.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 6 months later...

Alex Tunzelmann @ Guardian gives the film an A- for entertainment and a C for history:

Amazingly, director Stanley Kubrick was only 29 when this strikingly mature film came out. That made him a few years older than the average soldier in the first world war, but a youthful prodigy as far as film-makers are concerned. . . .

When Dax and his men advance into No Man's Land, the Germans are already shooting and shelling. Witnessing the slaughter that follows, French reinforcements refuse to leave their trenches. Enraged, Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own trenches to force the men in them to go over the top. Mireau and Dax are fictional characters, but this story (adapted from Humphrey Cobb's novel) is based on real events.

On 7 March 1915, French general Géraud Réveilhac ordered his artillery to fire on his own soldiers when they refused to advance at Souain in the Champagne region. As in the film, the artillerymen refused to fire on their own comrades. . . .

Dax calls off the assault. Mireau isn't at all happy with his soldiers. "They've skimmed milk in their veins instead of blood!" he bellows. He wants to shoot 100 of them, but Broulard talks him down to three. In real life, 30 men stood trial, though only four were convicted. They were Théophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat. Maupas, who had an exemplary record as a soldier, corresponds vaguely to the character of Pierre Arnaud (Joseph Turkel) in the film. . . .

In the film, Broulard is shocked by Mireau's action, and justice comes quickly. In real life, things weren't so neat. After the four men were executed, Réveilhac remained in his post until he was given three months' leave in February 1916 (because, according to a senior officer, he seemed to have "reached the limit of his physical and mental abilities"). He was later made a Grand Officer of the Legion d'honneur. The French authorities repeatedly refused to investigate the case. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of Maupas's widow, Blanche, and Lechat's sister Eulalie, a court cleared the men in 1934. General Réveilhac died peacefully at the age of 86 in 1937. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 7 months later...

What a movie. 

 

I'm so glad to have just read Jeremy's Top 100 description, as it addressed the question that kept coming to me as I read many online retrospectives about this.  Is this really, as so many say, an “anti-war film?”  I’m sure it could be read that way, but isn’t it so much deeper and to the point to call attention to what this movie says about the human beings who are themselves the actors in these wartime atrocities?  Jeremy nailed it when he said that calling this simply an “anti-war” film is lazy.  A movie that repeatedly highlights the horrors of evil authority and the evil in the heart of man is calling deeper attention to those evils than it is to the horrors of war itself.  Of course, it could be said that war and these evils are intertwined.  They are, however, only intertwined some of the time. 

 

What do others think of the “antiwar” label and its accuracy?

 

Also, I’d love to hear more thoughts about that final scene and what it means in the context of the film as a whole.

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2 things I wanted to throw up into the air about that great final scene in order to get people talking, because I know there will be some fascinating discussion from many of you if you pick this one up:

 

-Those in the audience know the tune, but they do not know the words.  (Paraphrased from Ebert’s description of the scene in his Great Movies blog.)

-The girl begins to sing even before anyone notices, and is not even heard at all until 10 seconds into her song.

 

There is something deeply powerful about those elements, and I would love to hear some comments about their significance.

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Also, I’d love to hear more thoughts about that final scene and what it means in the context of the film as a whole.

To me, it is a powerful moment of realized complicity. I think the film is suggesting that we can, by being merely thoughtless or careless, be morally culpable for evil. In the scene, the soldiers are all following each other's lead (in almost a mob-like mentality) in mocking and objectifying the girl. These men have grown hard and callous. The war that they are fighting has had a moral effect upon them. If there is one thing you are trained to do when you join the military, it is to lose and repress feelings of empathy. While this is necessary for certain situations in war, it is not always just something you can turn on and off at will. And rarely will a mob suddenly become conscious of the harm it is doing while it is doing it. But that is what happens in this scene.

 

In the broader context of the film, we are being given a story about senselessness and injustice in a time of war.  Ending the film with an awakening of realized unconscious moral complicity seems to serve as a uncomfortable and humbling warning to the viewer.

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Also, I’d love to hear more thoughts about that final scene and what it means in the context of the film as a whole.

To me, it is a powerful moment of realized complicity. I think the film is suggesting that we can, by being merely thoughtless or careless, be morally culpable for evil. In the scene, the soldiers are all following each other's lead (in almost a mob-like mentality) in mocking and objectifying the girl. These men have grown hard and callous. The war that they are fighting has had a moral effect upon them. If there is one thing you are trained to do when you join the military, it is to lose and repress feelings of empathy. While this is necessary for certain situations in war, it is not always just something you can turn on and off at will. And rarely will a mob suddenly become conscious of the harm it is doing while it is doing it. But that is what happens in this scene.

 

In the broader context of the film, we are being given a story about senselessness and injustice in a time of war.  Ending the film with an awakening of realized unconscious moral complicity seems to serve as a uncomfortable and humbling warning to the viewer.

 

Great stuff, Jeremy.  In that context, the fact that the soldiers know the tune but not the words suggests something very powerful.  It hints that perhaps this is only the beginning of this awakening, that there may be further steps of humbling revelation down the road which would correlate with actually beginning to grasp the words.  May we all move towards learning not just the music of this, but the words as well.

And the fact that it takes some time before anyone notices the girl is singing shows us how slow we are to recognize these things.  It also, by the way, shows us how slow we are to recognize beauty when we are hardened by a hateful spirit.  The appreciation by the soldiers of beauty (in the guise of the song) is also deeply moving when we realize that it itself is part of the awakening that is going on.

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