While the Bullets Fly

Paths of Glory (1957) (Spoilers)

French generals order an attack with a low chance of success that they expect to cost the lives of half its participants. After the mission fails, a colonel within the company defends three soldiers facing military execution on dubious charges of cowardice. They are shot nonetheless, and the colonel condemns their deaths as an injustice.

A great deal of the power of Paths of Glory comes from how this adequately describes its narrative and provides almost all the information necessary for its moral argument. These are the circumstances, and under those circumstances, we are made to feel that the executions were wrong.

Firmly in the tradition of a fables, parables and morality plays, Paths of Glory has a reductive form, yet the way in which it harnesses the power of such storytelling stands as its greatest accomplishment. Its reputation as one of history’s great “anti-war” films rests on the enduring force of its message.

This is a valid and accurate way of describing how Paths of Glory works, and also one that I don’t think takes away from the film’s achievement. Simplistic and classical forms, done right, are beautiful to behold. Two aspects of this are puzzling, however.

The first is that this is not quite what you expect from Stanley Kubrick. Luckily there’s a great explanation for this in an excellent essay by James Naremore. In addition to valuable background on the film’s production, he’s particularly adept at teasing out how Kirk Douglas’ involvement impacted the production, and the ways in which Kubrick capably accommodated him. This collaboration between a World War II veteran and a director with a penchant for more complex moral terrain and less upstanding protagonists thus wound up defining itself largely around a vision that could serve both of their purposes.

The second aspect, more difficult to explain, is that even within its 88-minute running time, Dax’s conflict is not the only thing we see. The film contains more than this single thread, yet in a film of this form, with this kind of didactic presentation, extra threads could well be at cross-purposes with the intended impact. Given that the film is an unqualified success, the many other scenes from the front must serve an additional purpose.

Part of the reason that these episodes don’t detract from the film’s quality is that they are beautiful, even at their most tangential. Yet scenes without Dax, not directly related to the executions, also provide an important context that’s in lockstep with the film’s message. The overal effect of watching what in the early going can feel like “Scenes from the Front, 1916” is to point toward a world where ethical compromise and degradation are pervasive, and characters’ motivations and priorities don’t neatly conform with moral norms. This is part of the deal when it comes to a wartime environment, yet with the film’s particular slant away from combat and toward the military as an institution, it’s of special importance.

Under the demands of its stark and powerful narrative frame, then, the contents of Paths of Glory apart from its central story are mostly there not for interpretation but for the accumulation of context.

Yet while these scenes and episodes play a necessary role in the film’s function, they retain an independent character. What they have to say, and much more importantly, the questions and issues they kick about, can’t stay wholly contained within the film’s architecture. This allows them an ambiguity and nuance not possible for the main scenes of Dax’s conflict, without taking away from their force, as to the extent they relate to the film’s point, they are on message.

This dual nature is made clear in the first scene of the film, where General Mireau entertains a visit from his superior, General Broulard. Mireau, who has a clear grasp of the practicalities of warfare, declines to undertake the mission because of its human cost and limited feasibility. After Broulard gives him the opportunity to see his participation as a means to a promotion, Mireau reconsiders.

This spry and graceful depiction of corruption gets the plot rolling, introduces two key characters, and provides the first point of evidence that the moral functioning of the film’s world is askew. This is to be expected.

Yet standing as it does on the edges of the film, before we even meet Dax, the ethical battle lines as yet undrawn, the scene has room to accommodate another perspective. And one could defensibly read the scene as a depiction of admirable bureaucratic competence. The staff general, Broulard, through an understanding of his subordinate officer’s personality, ensures that a mission determined to be of key military importance winds up with a trusted and competent commander fully invested in its success. And while the mission winds up a debacle, the conditions for its potential success were in place, and there’s no doubt that the picture of such events look very different at the operational level, or at a historical scale. Wars are the stuff of a thousand such military actions, and even failures can be of use.

The scene thus comfortably fits within a different, in some sense “larger” way of looking at things. The viewers never meet anyone above Broulard’s rank, but they are given an unmistakable indication that the events we are about to see could and do fit into a much wider picture.

There are many other scenes like this in Paths of Glory, each in service of the main narrative while accommodating another analysis by virtue of their own, independent moral content. They cluster toward the early part of the film, however, for Dax’s conflict and Douglas’ performance takes over, appropriately, as the pieces for the film’s argument lock clearly into place. That room for another perspective, the sense of other ways of looking, becomes less and less pronounced. By the time the executions have been carried out, the film pushes these alternate world views entirely out of the picture. Broulard uses information Dax provides to take down Mireau, who acted reprehensibly during the mission and had untoward motivations for seeking executions. Yet following this he offers the colonel a promotion, revealing that he has interpreted Dax’s actions as a means to the colonel’s advancement. Outraged, Dax delivers a masterpiece of emotionally charged invective, the character’s overwhelming moral condemnation no longer mediated through the language of the court-room: “I apologize… for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!” When Kirk Douglas is playing the hero and he shouts something, we’ve reached the stage of holy writ, and the film’s moral argument and narrative no longer have even the slightest distance between them.

This process of moral clarification is a part of how Paths of Glory operates; the film’s increasing lack of subtlety is not a lack of accomplishment or a loss of complexity, but a deliberate and finely accomplished focusing. Providing easy answers to questions of morals in wartime is a difficult business, and Paths of Glory understands this, and works so well, because of how expertly it stacks the deck. This is in keeping with one of Kubrick’s many strengths as a storyteller. He doesn’t let the complex implications of simple events overstep their rightful bounds, and as an ethicist he is similarly adept at walling off what he is most concerned with from a full treatment of all available ethical dilemmas.

Yet the content of the film’s moral message, for its heartfelt specificity, is not sufficient to make a broad statement about ethics and morality, even about the specific practice it focuses on. While I can’t say I wholeheartedly support the practice, Paths of Glory‘s particular condemnation doesn’t preclude holding the idea that circumstances exist where executing soldiers who fail to advance may well be for the greater good. In this battle, in this situation, in this movie, it is wrong, yet at other times and places, on could see the practice as both small potatoes as an ethical transgression and, much more importantly, subordinate to the larger moral necessity of ensuring effective combat of an army under the most trying conditions imaginable. That’s not to say this is the case, but there’s a room for argument not present in the film’s central drama.

Indeed, on closer view, almost every episode in the movie allows for great depths of moral complication. These could provide the raw material for a more expansive statement, yet one that would need to encompass aspects the film’s framing cannot, by necessity, dwell on. This quality of ethical content more charged than the film’s framing of its argument is so essential to the experience of the film that it even pops up in the film’s only combat sequence, where Kubrick’s main concern is the sensory depiction of the war’s violence and capacity to awe. Mireau’s company begins its charge on the German position, yet a third of the men remain in the trench and do not join in the harrowing advance across no-man’s land.  They are led by the lieutenant who at an earlier point in the film directly causes the death of one of his men through drunken incompetence, and will later arrange for the death of the only witness to this. In combat, we see him hold back on the charge because he is overwhelmed at the chaos and force of battle, disobeying vital orders and fatally compromising the mission.

Beyond establishing that the mission is futile from its opening seconds, the scene presents a clear piece of evidence that the soldiers actually executed weren’t noteworthy cowards, and that the members of the system condemning the men had no moral standing to do so. Its place in the narrative and argument of the film is thus straightforward.

The consequences of this action within the world of the film, however, are most interesting. These troops are a significant portion of the fighting troops for an advance with an already-insufficient mass of invading soldiers. The consequence of their abdication of duty is to multiply enormously the peril and danger for the troops who do head into the line of fire, and also ensure that the already long-shot mission will meet certain failure. Yet by giving into his fear the lieutenant unquestionably saves the lives of the troops under his direct command. Thus the one character in the film who probably does deserve being tied up to a post and shot directly saves more lives than any other character, including the impeccable Dax, who can’t save three.

One could go further down such lines of thought, and consider a mission that had succeeded within the world of the film. That would be a version of the world of Paths of Glory without the executions, as the three men whose lives Dax tries to save would either have died in the line of fire or found themselves dug into new positions a few hundred feet further from Paris. The cost for undoing the sin of their executions, however, would be many more dead French soldiers and many, many more dead German soldiers. That Paths of Glory would not exist if this occurred within its fictional world is beside the point here, as it’s enough to demonstrate that within the film’s actual events the impact of even actual cowardice aren’t clear-cut.

Paths of Glory has no interest in directly pursuing these thought experiments, but to me, at least, they come unbidden. These aren’t comfortable questions, but that’s also because they aren’t how we’re accustomed to thinking about trade-offs in war and a war environment. This odd accommodation of unproblematic killing alongside entirely immoral executions can’t sit entirely comfortably within the film, as defensible a distinction as it is. Kubrick has an acute grasp of this, and thus in a famously “anti-war” movie, whose star was a Navy veteran of World War II, the question of the justice of war as a phenomenon is never interrogated.

This would have probably made for a much murkier movie, saying less by attempting to say far more. Yet a uniquely compelling aspect of watching Kubrick’s film as it stands is that the space outside the narrative frame is so competently rendered that you can spend time there, as well.  It’s there for your consideration. Paths of Glory is thus not about alternate perspectives, or even in any sense encouraging them, but its craft makes its contents so clear and precise in their constituent elements that viewers can examine and sort them, view and re-contextualize them, in the same manner that Dax wrests from the exigencies and complications of the war a legal and moral framework with which to re-establish moral absolutes.

That Dax fights to preserve innocent human life is, for him, for the film, for a viewing, enough. As for what’s around him, that’s there to take in, too; all you have to do is pop your head out of the trench Kubrick has so meticulously constructed. You first.

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