The Great Anti-War Films Paths of Glory

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In
1776, the American colonies declared independence from Britain to
rid themselves of the tyrannical rule of King George III. In 1974,
famed director Stanley Kubrick declared independence from Hollywood
and moved, ironically, to England, where he lived and worked until
his death in 1999. Kubrick desired the freedom to work autonomously,
unencumbered by the hierarchical studio system.

His
fourth feature film, Paths
of Glory
(1957), is a devastating denunciation of the hierarchical
structure of military organizations wherein the elite officers are
detached from the brutal realities of the soldiers who do the actual
fighting, and dying. The film was based on the 1935 novel by Humphrey
Cobb, which in turn was based on newspaper accounts about damages
paid by the French government for unwarranted executions of soldiers.
The film was banned for twenty years in France because of this controversial
indictment of the French military.

Imagine
if such a film, that dared to question our current administration
and its nebulous war, were to be produced today. Would the First
Amendment prevail, or would the film be banned? Might pressure Washington
exerts on a Hollywood studio stop the film from even being produced?

The
opening scene exposes both the futility of war and the yawning gulf
between the privileged officers and the soldiers they command. Voiceover
narration sets the scene:

War
began between Germany and France on August 3, 1914 … by 1916,
after two grisly years of trench warfare, the battle lines had
changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in the
hundreds of yards, and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile,
while their troops are living (and dying) in miserable trenches,
the generals are headquartered in a palatial chateau. It is here
that General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) of the French High
Command arrives to inform his underling General Paul Mireau (George
Macready) that he is to take a German stronghold known as Ant Hill.

Realizing
that such a maneuver would entail a suicidal charge up the hill,
Mireau is resistant to the plan:

It's
out of the question, George. Absolutely out of the question.
My division was cut to pieces. What's left of it is in no position
to even hold the Ant Hill, let alone take it.

When
Broulard implies that a quick promotion will be his reward for taking
the Hill, Mireau quickly changes his tune. "Nothing is beyond
those men once their fighting spirit is aroused!"

Mireau
proceeds to the front to inform his subordinate Colonel Dax, consummately
portrayed by Kirk Douglas, of the plan. Before he reaches Dax, Mireau
condescends to the troops, blithely asking, "Hello there soldier.
Ready to kill more Germans?" Told that another soldier who
is unresponsive to his questions is in shell shock, Mireau responds
angrily, "There is no such thing as shell shock!" Mireau
strikes the soldier, who responds by breaking down in tears, prompting
Mireau to order, "Sergeant, I want you to arrange for the immediate
transfer of this baby out of my regiment. I won't have any of our
brave men contaminated by him."

When
the General arrives at Dax's dank trench headquarters, he initially
talks about the plan in a vague way before finally informing Dax
that his regiment is charged with taking Ant Hill, admitting that
half the men will die in the assault. Nonetheless, the corrupt general
asserts, "But we shall have the Ant Hill."

Dax,
his voice dripping with incredulity, responds, "But will we
sir?"

Dax
also objects to Mireau's invocation of patriotism, telling him,
"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

The
reader notes, I'm sure, the present climate of flag-waving patriotism
prevalent in America.

When
Mireau threatens to remove Dax from his command, he has no choice
but to acquiesce. "We'll take the Ant Hill. If any soldiers
anywhere can take it, we'll take the Ant Hill."

It's
good enough for Mireau, but we can clearly see that Dax has no faith
whatever in his own pronouncement.

In
yet another scene that exhibits the tendency of a superior officer
to use his position to manipulate a subordinate officer, three men
are assigned to a reconnaissance patrol in no-man's land the night
before the attack. Lieutenant Roget resorts to drinking, finding
his courage in a bottle. After crawling through the shell-torn landscape,
Roget orders Private Lejeune to strike out alone as an advance scout.
When Lejeune doesn't return, Roget panics, heaving a grenade into
the black and running back to the trench. Corporal Paris bravely
advances to investigate and discovers that the grenade has ripped
Lejeune apart.

When
Paris returns to the bunker, Roget is shocked to see him, assuming
he had been killed. Paris confronts him about killing Lejeune, and
Roget responds by pulling rank:

Roget:
I don't think I like your tone. You're speaking to an officer.
Remember that.

Paris:
Oh, well I must be mistaken then, sir. An officer wouldn't do
that. A man wouldn't do it. Only a thing would. A sneaky, booze-guzzling,
yellow-bellied rat with a bottle for a brain and a streak of
spit where his spine ought to be. You've got yourself into a
mess, Lieutenant.

Roget:
Oh, I have, have I? Well, you've got yourself in a worse one.
First, general insubordination. Second, threatening your superior
officer. Third, refusing to obey an order and inciting others
to do the same. Now, how do you think those charges are going
to look on paper?

Paris:
Not half as bad as these: endangering the lives of your men
through recklessness; drunk on duty; wanton murder of one of
your own men; and cowardice in the face of the enemy.

Roget:
Have you ever tried to bring charges against an officer? It's
my word against yours, you know, and whose word do you think
they're gonna believe? Or let me put it another way: whose word
do you think they're going to accept?

This
last line exhibits that truth is but another casualty of war and
is a virtual microcosm of the modern state: we don't have to tell
the people the truth; let's just tell them what they want to hear,
but make it plausible.

Roget
falsifies his report, stating that Lejeune was killed by machine
gun fire after coughing.

At
dawn, just minutes before the attack is to commence, two privates
discuss their fears and odds for survival. The grim reality of the
soldiers is juxtaposed with the atmosphere in Mireau's command post,
where he insouciantly offers a cognac toast "to France."

As
Dax strides solemnly through the trench, his troops line up, their
bayonet-fitted rifles at the ready. The tension builds as bombs
fall all around their position. Led by Dax, the men storm out of
the trench and advance. Within minutes, thousand of them are slaughtered
by German machine gun fire. Those that aren't killed retreat to
their trenches. A second wave never leaves the trenches.

General
Mireau, who is watching the scene unfold through binoculars from
the safety of his command post well behind the lines, is livid.
He orders Captain Rousseau, the artillery commander, to open fire
on his own troops still in the trenches. Rousseau refuses the order
twice.

Dax
returns to the bunker to exhort Roget to command his men to try
again. "It's impossible sir. All the men are falling back."

Mireau
is infuriated at their cowardice and declares a general court-martial
for three o'clock the following day. "If those little sweethearts
won't face German bullets, they'll face French ones!" Ah yes,
we finally find something at which the government is actually efficient
— killing people.

Dax
is ordered to the chateau to discuss the details of the court-martial
with Mireau and Broulard. Mireau is still livid that so many of
the men never left the trenches.

Dax:
They're not cowards, so if some of them didn't leave the trenches,
it must have been because it was impossible.

Mireau:
They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that
order. We can't leave it up to the men to decide when an order
is possible or not. If it was impossible, the only proof of
that would be their dead bodies lying in the bottom of the trenches.
They are scum, Colonel, the whole rotten regiment. A pack of
sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.

Dax:
Do you really believe that, sir?

Mireau.
Yes I do. That's exactly what I believe. And what's more, it's
an incontestable fact.

Dax:
Then why not shoot the entire regiment? If it's an example you
want, take me … the logical choice is the officer most responsible
for the attack.

Broulard
and Mireau prove themselves to be no Harry Truman, and decide to
pass the buck down the line of command: one man from each company
in the first wave is to be chosen by the company commander. Dax,
who was a lawyer as a civilian before the war, offers to act as
defense counsel. He visits the three selected men in their cell
before the trial, who complain about the way they were chosen. Corporal
Paris was chosen by Lt. Roget to permanently cover up his cowardly
murder of Lejeune; Private Arnaud was selected by random drawing
of lots; and Private Ferol was chosen because his commander considered
him a "sociable undesirable."

The
trial, which takes place in the elegant ballroom of the chateau,
is a farce. Colonel Judge, the president of the court-martial, refuses
to read the indictment, saying simply that the men are charged with
cowardice in the face of the enemy. The prosecutor, Major Saint-Auban
(Richard Anderson) questions the three condemned men to establish
"the facts" but presents no witnesses. Dax is not allowed
to enter Arnaud's previously earned medals of bravery into the record,
nor is he allowed to call any character witnesses.

In
his summation, Major Saint-Auban conflates the nation and the state:

I
submit the attack was a stain on the flag of France, a blot
on the honor of every man, woman and child in the French nation.
It is to us that the sad, distressing, repellent duty falls,
gentlemen. I ask this court to find the accused guilty.

Dax
delivers an impassioned rebuttal:

There
are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race
and this is one such occasion … I protest against being prevented
from introducing evidence that I consider vital to the defense.
The prosecution presented no witnesses (and) there has never
been a written indictment of charges made against the defendants
… the attack yesterday morning was no stain on the honor of
France, and certainly no disgrace to the fighting men of this
nation, but this court-martial is such a stain and such a disgrace.
The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice
… Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty will be a
crime to haunt each of you to the day you die. I can't believe
that the noblest impulse in man, his compassion for another,
can be completely dead here. Therefore, I humbly beg you to
show mercy to these men.

It
doesn't take a MENSA member to realize that the kangaroo court will
return a verdict of guilty. The men will face a firing squad at
seven the next morning. As they await their fate in their cell,
a priest (Emile Meyer) attempts to comfort them. "Have faith
in your Creator. Death comes to us all."

Arnaud
is not reassured. "That's really deep, death comes to us all."
He has been drinking and waves the bottle. "This is my religion."
He loses control and strikes the priest. When he threatens to hit
him again, Paris punches Arnaud, sending him sprawling back. His
head smacks into the wall, rendering him unconscious.

A
doctor tells Paris that Arnaud should be pinched awake before the
execution. "The general wants him to be conscious."

Dax
orders Lt. Roget, who chose Paris to face trial in order to cover
up his own misdeeds, to supervise the firing squad:

There's
nothing to it … you take your position with the firing squad,
you raise your sword, u2018Ready, aim, fire.' Then you draw your
revolver out, you walk forward and put a bullet through each
man's head.

Powerless
to defend his men during the court-martial, Dax takes a modicum
of dismal satisfaction in the one power he does possess: assigning
this distasteful task to the craven Roget.

The
artillery commander Rousseau comes by to inform Dax that he has
information that may bear on the executions. Dax goes immediately
to the chateau ballroom, which has been transformed from the court-martial
setting, to see General Broulard at an officer's ball. After adjourning
to the library, Dax presents the damning evidence against Mireau
ordering Rosseau to fire on his own troops.

Broulard
asks, "What has all this got to do with the charge against
the condemned prisoners?"

Dax
implies that the execution would be scuttled if word of Mireau's
order were to be leaked:

You
are in a difficult position. Too much has happened. Someone's
got to be hurt. The only question is who. General Mireau's assault
on the Ant Hill failed. His order to fire on his own troops
was refused. But his attempt to protect his own reputation will
be prevented by the General's staff.

After
accusing Dax of blackmail, he departs without indicating what he
will do with this incriminating information.

Predictably,
the injustice prevails and the men are executed at the appointed
time. Afterwards, Broulard and Mireau eat breakfast and celebrate
the killings. Dax joins them and is greeted by the mendacious Mireau,
"Your men died very well."

Broulard
then mentions that he knows about Mireau's order to fire on his
own men and tells him that he will have to face a public inquiry
to answer the charges. Broulard, the man ultimately responsible
for the debacle, effectively sets up his general to be the fourth
victim.

After
Mireau leaves, Broulard offers Mireau's command to Dax, who reacts
angrily to his assertion that he had been angling for the job all
along, that he would emulate his superiors and seek his own u2018path
of glory.' "Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can
do with that promotion?"

Broulard
demands an apology, threatening to arrest Dax if he refuses. Dax
apologizes all right:

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!

The
chastened general responds:

Colonel
Dax, you're a disappointment to me … you really did want to
save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command.
You are an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.
We're fighting a war, Dax, a war that we've got to win. Those
men didn't fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against
Mireau, so I insist that he answer them. Wherein have I done
wrong?

Stunned,
Dax replies, "Because you don't know the answer to that question,
I pity you."

In
the final poignant scene, Dax strolls by a tavern where his men
are getting drunk. Standing outside, he sees that a frightened German
girl is being forced to sing a song. As she begins, she cannot be
heard over the din of catcalls and whistles. When at last the rowdy
soldiers quiet down, their demeanor quickly changes as they hear
the girl sing. Her plaintive voice melts their nationalities as
the men begin to hum along with her. One of the men has a tear streaking
down his face. They realize that they are all still human beings,
and not just soldiers sent off to war by corrupt governments.

Paths
of Glory is an inspired film and a scathing indictment not just
of war itself, but also of the nature of politicians and the military
elites who send innocent young men into harm's way to advance their
own agendas and careers.

As
the bombs falls in Afghanistan, I repeat the challenge that I issued
in my review
of All Quiet on the Western Front
: if you support Washington's
Total War on terrorism, a war which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
said Monday will not end until all terrorists have been eliminated
(a fanciful and unattainable goal), watch this film and ask yourself
it you really trust the government to do the right thing.

Remember
that war is the biggest government program of them all, and its
existence provides the pretense for ever more power grabs that presumably
would not be tolerated otherwise. Billions of private dollars (is
there any other kind? Government produces nothing and must take
by force what it has) have been expropriated for airline bailouts,
expanded unemployment insurance and countless other subsidies and
relief programs. The money you have left is being further devalued
through the secret tax of inflation as Alan Greenspan prints more
currency.

And
what about the effects of Total War on your remaining liberties?
On Monday, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was sworn in as
the first (he won't be the last) Director of Homeland Security.
This agency will do nothing to protect you and will instead curtail
the freedom that it claims to secure. It's the age-old ploy of the
state: when it fails miserably at something, it expands in a feeble
attempt to solve problems that it created in the first place. The
inevitable result is a reduction of your wealth and liberties. Are
you sure it's worth it?

October
9, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The Valley News.

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