Three Cheers for the Great Stanley Kubrick
Dale Steinreich and Rod
of Glory (1957)
Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Metal Jacket (1987)
export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in
defense of our great nation.
George W. Bush quoted in Bob Woodward's Bush
work of brilliant visionaries is rarely understood or fully appreciated
until long after their deaths. In the social sciences, economist
Ludwig von Mises certainly falls into this category. In cinematography,
not only was Stanley Kubrick a genius with few approximate equals
across a wide range of genres and settings, he is and will likely
remain the greatest antiwar filmmaker of all time. Today (March
7, 2003) marks the fourth anniversary of his untimely death at 70
years of age.
was born in New York City on July 26, 1928. His skill in capturing
stirring visual images first appeared at age sixteen when one of
his photographs was published in Look magazine. Look's
editors were so impressed with his work that he became one of
their freelance photographers. Kubrick used his modest income
from this and other work to fund a documentary short on boxing named
Day of the Fight (1950). After completing two more
documentaries, Kubrick borrowed money from relatives to fund Fear
and Desire (1953), an hour-long feature that was his first war
film. The plot involves four soldiers trapped behind enemy
lines who try to escape to safety only to find that their worst
enemy is themselves.
about a four-year hiatus independently making two low-budget crime
features, Kubrick returned to the war genre in Paths
of Glory (1957), his first major studio release. After
(1960) and Lolita
(1962), Kubrick returned to the war genre again with Dr.
Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Bomb (1964). Kubrick continued to churn out magnificent
films such as 2001:
A Space Odyssey (1968), A
Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry
Lyndon (1975), The
Shining (1980), Full
Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes
Wide Shut (1999) which was completed only just before his
Kubrick's filmography of only ten major studio releases over forty-two
years is considered modest in the industry but reveals his emphasis
on quality over quantity. Kubrick had a definite vision of
his end product and his skill in successfully bringing his visions
to form in such a unique and inimitable style was his greatest and
lasting genius. The following are three of the greatest antiwar
films of all time.
of Glory (1957)
Based on Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel of the same name (which
Kubrick read when he was only fourteen years old), the setting for
Paths of Glory is France 1916, two years after the beginning
of hostilities with Germany. Although early in the conflict
the German army had advanced to within eighteen miles of Paris,
the French successfully repelled it and formed a new front.
For two years, though, the contest between the two armies remained
a stalemate and the French military leadership became impatient.
Thus the film's central conflict between the top military brass
and the 701st regiment over what turns out to be an impossible mission.
Paths of Glory, if nothing else, is Kubrick's exposé of the
treacherous politics inside defense establishments which lead not
only to the destruction of lives in other lands, but the obliteration
of lives and careers in their own ranks. The perfidy begins
at the office of General Paul Mireau (George Macready) which has
the opulence of Louis XIV's palace at Versailles with cathedral
ceilings and floor spaces, huge paintings, and beautiful furniture
courtesy of the French taxpayers. This is driven home by Mireau's
statement to General Broulard that he's done little of his own decorating
to his new office since he recently took possession of it.
When Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) attempts to tell Mireau that he has
a secret plan, Mireau guesses exactly what Broulard wants to discuss:
a heavily fortified German position in his sector known as The Ant
Hill. Broulard is surprised that Mireau has read his mind,
but Mireau conveys that the brass are awful at keeping secrets.
Sure enough, Broulard wants Mireau's regiment to take the Ant Hill,
but it must be within two days! Mireau replies that this is
ridiculous, his battle-weary regiment is in no shape to hold, never
mind win, such a hardened position. Both officers know the
impossibility of the mission but Mireau, not yet corrupted by his
own ambition, is the only one of the two who cares about the consequences.
Broulard belittles Mireau's concerns and slyly mentions that Mireau
is being considered for a promotion and can earn another star.
Broulard implies that Mireau's acceptance of the daunting Ant Hill
mission will greatly help his chances at promotion. Mireau
protests that he's responsible for 8,000 men. What is his
ambition and reputation against that? His men come first.
Broulard turns to leave but Mireau (sensing that his promotion is
slipping away) drags him back and agrees to take the Hill.
great Kubrickian moment comes next with Mireau in the field touring
the trenches. A shell-shocked private can't answer Mireau's
small-talk questions. The private completely breaks down and
Mireau gives him a Pattonesque slap and ships him out, saying that
cowardice is contagious. Mireau then visits Colonel Dax (Kirk
Douglas). Dax lets Mireau view the Ant Hill through a periscope.
As if on cue, a huge explosion from enemy fire blows Mireau back
into the trench. Unfazed, Mireau tells Dax his regiment is
going to take the Hill tomorrow, estimating troop losses at about
60%. When Dax expresses his doubts about not only the casualty
estimations but the fantasy of taking the Hill, Mireau threatens
him with an indefinite furlough. The formerly practical Mireau
has now become a fanatic transformed by the lust of his ambition.
The attempt to take the Hill is of course disastrous. The
weather is clear, Dax has no support from other regiments, and the
German fire, already overwhelming when the troops leave the trenches,
handily mows down Dax's already meager force. Kubrick unveils
a spectacular tracking shot in his portrayal of Dax's unsuccessful
attempt to take the Hill. The production design is particularly
good in showing the thorough destruction of war upon the land.
Troops navigate the horrifically scarred terrain strewn with corpses,
mangled trees, and scorched ruins of buildings.
Dax's failure unfold, Mireau is infuriated and orders an artillery
commander to fire at Dax's men. When the commander refuses,
Mireau tells the commander he is under arrest. Mireau then
orders Dax to his headquarters. For their failure to take
the Hill, one hundred men from Dax's regiment will be tried under
penalty of death for cowardice. If Dax resists, he too will
be arrested. Dax offers himself as a scapegoat since "the
logical choice is the officer most responsible for the attack."
Both Mireau and Broulard are horrified at this suggestion as they
quickly see that this logic leads right back up the military hierarchy
to them, the true instigators of the plan. Broulard quickly
shuts off this line of thinking, concluding that the issue is "not
a question of officers." Mireau settles for three men
in Dax's regiment to be made scapegoats. After the meeting
is adjourned, Mireau catches up with Dax and threatens to ruin him.
Mireau's ambition has now transformed him into a complete monster.
The selection of Mireau's scapegoats is interesting: Corporal
Paris (Ralph Meeker) is chosen by Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris)
because Paris is the only living witness to Roget's recent, criminally
negligent murder of a fellow soldier. Private Arnaud (Joe
Turkel) is chosen by lot, Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) because
he is a "social undesirable." All three have proven
themselves brave in past battles yet all three are tried for cowardice,
found guilty, and sentenced to death. The night before the
execution Arnaud falls back against a wall and fractures his skull.
Barely conscious, he's strapped on a stretcher and still executed
(right side up) with the two other prisoners before a firing squad.
hallmark of any Kubrick production is of course unforgettable dialogue.
As Dax tries in vain to save the three doomed men, Broulard tells
him that the executions will be a "tonic for the entire division
there are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating
than seeing someone else die...You see, Colonel, troops are like
children. Just as a child wants its father to be firm, troops
crave discipline. One way to maintain discipline is to shoot
a man now and then." Broulard, after dismissing Mireau,
doesn't see the irony in his own declaration that "France cannot
afford to have fools guiding her military destiny." Mireau
describes the execution of the three soldiers as filled with "splendor...the
men died wonderfully."
last interesting note concerns what E.M. Forester called "flat
characters" that Kubrick has inserted into this film.
Of particular interest is the smarmy Major Saint-Auban (Richard
Anderson), the consummate military bureaucrat who is stupid, has
rarely (if ever at all) seen actual combat, but lives for political
maneuvering. Early in the film Saint-Auban is quick to tell
Dax that one of his missions was a failure given the large amount
of casualties. Dax, in so many words, tells Saint-Auban that
he is ignorant and that such unfortunate outcomes often occur in
war. Saint-Auban is next seen in the courtroom as the prosecutor
in the kangaroo court martial. Here he looks confident, relaxed,
and in his element operating in a rigged system which smears and
destroys people with false charges. The last time the audience
sees Saint-Auban is when he reads the execution order. He
looks noticeably uncomfortable getting his hands dirty in the field
and anxious to return to his natural element of serpentine political
Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
The screenplay for Strangelove is an adaptation of Peter
George's 1958 novel Red
Alert. Kubrick and comic writer Terry Southern re-worked
George's serious novel into a black satire that begins with the
Soviets at work on a doomsday machine in the Zhokov Islands.
After the opening credits the perspective then cuts to Burpelson
Air Force Base and the office of General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling
Hayden). Ripper phones Colonel Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers)
and informs him that Burpelson is being put on Condition Red.
Further, Ripper wants Mandrake to transmit Attack Plan R to a wing
of B-52 bombers flying only two hours away from their assigned Russian
surface targets. Last of all, Ripper orders that all privately
owned radios be confiscated as they could be used to issue instructions
Mandrake has no qualms about the general's orders until he stumbles
on a private radio and finds entire frequency bands broadcasting
music an impossibility during a nuclear attack. Mandrake
confronts Ripper who then reveals that he unilaterally ordered the
attack so that once the U.S. President and Joint Chiefs realize
they can't recall the 843rd bomber wing, they'll have to completely
commit to a war with the Soviets. Mandrake is horrified but
can't recall the wing because only Ripper knows the three-letter
code that will bring it back. He remains in Ripper's company
to see if he can get Ripper to reveal the code.
Meanwhile at the Pentagon, President Merken Muffley (Peter Sellers)
and General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott) agonize
about how to stop the wing attack. At this juncture the plot
gets interesting. Turgidson points out that the Attack Plan
R disaster now unfolding was implemented after a squabble started
by a senator trying to paint his opponents as soft on the Soviets.
Ordinarily, only the president would be allowed to order the use
of nuclear weapons but Plan R allows a lower-level commander to
order their use if the Commander in Chief and top military brass
are eliminated in a surprise enemy attack. President Muffley
is infuriated at the usurpation of his authority, but Turgidson
points out that it was Muffley himself who approved Plan R without
understanding all its provisions and their ramifications.
One provision is that once the B-52s move beyond failsafe, to prevent
the enemy from issuing fake recall orders to the planes, the planes
cannot be recalled by any means but a three-letter code known only
by the lower echelon general who ordered Attack Plan R. In
other words, the current wing can only be recalled by the utterly
The two issues deftly explored in Strangelove are the consequences
of militaristic paranoia and the strange love of death and destruction
shared by the defense establishment and its ideological entourage.
Paranoid delusions about an alleged communist plan to adulterate
the U.S. water supply drive General Ripper mad and motivate him
to implement Plan R. Plan R in turn was the result of needless
paranoia whipped up by a Senator Buford angling for political advantage
by portraying his opponents as soft on communism. Militaristic
paranoia is thus interlocking and permutative. When Soviet
Premier Kissov complains to Muffley that all but one of the thirty-four
planes has been successfully recalled, Turgidson smells "a
big fat commie rat."
When the War Room at the Pentagon realizes Kissov is right and Soviet
air defense might not completely neutralize Ripper's attack, Dr.
Strangelove (Peter Sellers, again!) suggests hiding a human colony
deep in a mineshaft away from harmful radiation for 100 years.
The idea seems promising until paranoia rears its ugly head yet
again. Turgidson wonders about the Russians secretly saving
a bomb to ensure their military dominance after 100 years in hiding.
Another general speculates that the evil Russkies wouldn't need
to wait: they'd detonate the bomb to take over U.S. mineshaft
space immediately, and on and on. The Soviets are paranoid
as well: they construct the doomsday machine because they
hear (wrongly) that the U.S. is working on one. Soviet ambassador
de Sadesky (Peter Bull) takes secret photos of the War Room twice
in the film.
strange love of killing and destruction is a theme deserving of
much exploration. The "love of the bomb" referred
to in the movie's subtitle is embraced by some strange men indeed.
Ripper admits to acquiring his current state of madness during the
act of sex when after climax he felt a sense of fatigue and emptiness.
Instead of examining his guilt in light of his immoral fornication,
he concludes that the real problem is a "loss of essence."
The solution? He pursues women but denies them his essence.
He is thus barren and married only to the defense establishment,
curiously comparing the surrendering soldiers at Burpelson to his
non-existent "children." Turgidson is much the same.
He would rather make war than love, unthinkably leaving the randy
and ready knockout beauty Miss Scott alone at 3:00 a.m. in favor
of work in the War Room at the Pentagon.
all the war eunuchs, Strangelove is the most barren. He is
a synthesis of man and machine, moving around on wheels, suppressing
the tendencies of his wayward mechanical right arm. Like Ripper
and Turgidson he is paradoxically single but married to the fantasy
of world domination. The specifics of his mineshaft-colony
proposal echo Nazi eugenics and while he relates his plan he repeatedly
suppresses his tendencies to give Muffley a Nazi salute and call
him mein Führer . Ripper, Turgidson, and Strangelove's
vision is the antithesis of life-affirming conventional love leading
to the fusion of organic sperm and egg. Their love is the
strange one leading to the fusion of inorganic atoms paving the
way to universal death and destruction. Further, the perverse
love isomorphism is backward with its post- as opposed to pre-conception
Strangelove, while a great and undoubtedly classic film,
is definitely one of Kubrick's weaker outings. The sexual
innuendo gets cloying at times: the copulative midair refueling
of the B-52 to the tune of "Try a Little Tenderness,"
the pursuant brief cut to the phallic nose needle on the military
jet, Turgidson wanting to fully commit to Ripper's attack to catch
the Russians with their "pants down," the many character
names that serve as sexual references (Muffley, de Sadesky, Turgidson,
Mandrake). The film's slapstick is too subtle to make it a
consistently effective comedy, but not subtle enough to make it
a credible warning about the adverse consequences of megalomania
and paranoia in high places. Even in spite of these significant
weaknesses, it is still a superb work of art. It is beautifully
photographed in black-and-white film and its many Cold War anachronisms
haven't stopped many Generation Yers from appreciating it.
For a Saturday-night rental with a girlfriend or wife, it beats
the other two films in this review hands down.
Metal Jacket (1987)
Metal Jacket is Kubrick's adaptation of Gustav Hasford's 1979
novel The Short-Timers. In this film Kubrick's commentary
on war is conveyed primarily through two devices: duality
and paradox. The film opens with new recruits getting their
heads shaved. The head shaving is both a peeling away of a
first layer of humanity and a shearing of young sheep for slaughter.
Next comes one of the most unforgettable acting performances in
the history of war film. Gunnery sergeant Hartman (R. Lee
Ermey) introduces the new Paris Island recruits to the Marine Corps
with a vulgar, degrading, and obscenity-laced tirade. Here
Kubrick brilliantly conveys his message through situational irony.
The austere and immaculate barracks are a direct contrast to the
ornately foul-mouthed Hartman. The barracks are dimly lit
only by rays of sunlight streaming in through their windows, creating
the feel of a mental ward. The pillars and blood-red floor
evoke the atavistic madness of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's earlier
film The Shining. Hartman tells the young recruits
that he will make them "ministers of death praying for war."
The "eight-week college for the phony tough and crazy brave"
is a steady process of dehumanization and transformation of the
young recruits into unreflective, cold-blooded killers. The
paradoxes continue with the privates marching in meticulously neat
and carefully spaced formations while mindlessly repeating Hartman's
crude, juvenile, and sexually vulgar chants. Kubrick frames
the contradictions of these day sequences under a glazed and empty
azure sky the eye of a catatonic stare suggesting the universality
of the crazed vision of war. This universal vision is an archetype
of the Jungian collective unconscious in its struggle against its
dual and sometimes resistive personal unconscious. The struggle
inside the Jungian dual can be seen throughout the movie before
being alluded to by Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in Act III.
That night the apprenticing ministers of war robotically recite
"My Rifle: The Creed of a U.S. Marine" in the manner
of the Lord's Prayer.
Act I is the story of Private Joker's survival of boot camp and
the fall of Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio).
Lawrence is naive, myopic, unworldly, and clumsy. He runs
afoul of Hartman on his first day on Paris Island. Hartman
re-names him "Private Gomer Pyle" and rides him mercilessly
for his mistakes. During a drill "Pyle" puts his
rifle on the wrong shoulder. Hartman slaps him. Pyle
certainly knows his right from his left, but the true battle is
between the dual of his personal innocence and the primordial collective
proclivity for war. Pyle is next seen walking behind formation
sucking his thumb with his pants pulled down to his ankles and his
underwear showing; another humiliation for a miscue. Early
the next day Hartman yells at Pyle for not holding his rifle four
inches from his chest. The recruits cheer as Private Snowball
(Peter Edmund) beats Pyle to a pulp with a pugil stick.
Pyle is as inept as can be in scaling obstacles and Hartman mercilessly
berates him. Hartman then decides to punish the platoon for
each of Pyle's future mistakes and, having to do dozens of push-ups
for every one of Pyle's blunders, the platoon quickly turns against
Pyle. One night the recruits pin Pyle in his bed and viciously
pelt him with bars of soap. Private Joker pelts Pyle longer
and harder than anyone else. Pyle finally cracks, making no
further mistakes but now talking to himself and looking like
a dazed, rabid dog on the drill fields. Broken of all his
humanity, the last night on the Island Pyle tells Joker he's in
a "world of s---" before fatally shooting Hartman and
then himself. Pyle's statement about the world is dual in
meaning, referring to both the personal and metaphysical.
II begins in Da Nang, Vietnam to the tune of Nancy Sinatra's "These
Boots are Made for Walking." There's of course duality
here too, as both the U.S. troops and their Vietnamese hosts take
turns walking on each other. A prostitute propositions Joker
and Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). Rafterman takes
her picture and immediately a Vietnamese youth grabs his camera,
turns to mockingly execute a few Bruce Lee karate moves into the
air, and then flees on a motorcycle. Rafterman says to Joker,
what really pisses me off about these people? We're supposed
to be helping them and they s--- all over us every chance they get.
I just can't feature that." The cynical Private Joker
explains it's "just business" (as the un-winnable war
is a "private joke"). Not much cynicism finds its
way into the Stars and Stripes, the spinning newspaper where
Joker and Rafterman work. Joker's editor explains that only
two types of stories run in the Stars and Stripes:
stories where "[g]runts give half their pay to buy gooks toothbrushes
and deodorants...and combat action that results in a kill."
Stories that don't fit inside these parameters are ignored or altered
to fit them.
III is where Kubrick makes his most pointed statements about war.
Joker and Rafterman are sent to Phu Bai after the NVA advance on
Hue. They get on a CH-34 copter where Rafterman gags in sickness
and Joker watches the copter door gunner fire automatic bursts from
an M-60 rifle into what seems like empty countryside below.
However, empty countryside is what lies below in front of
the copter, where the camera is initially fixed. After some
delay, Kubrick then brilliantly has the camera quickly cut level
clockwise over to the gunner's perspective. It turns out that
the gunner is shooting at Vietnamese civilians below who are frantically
scrambling to avoid his fire. The gunner brags that he's killed
"157 gooks and 50 water buffalo:"
Any women or children?
Door Gunner: Sometimes.
Joker: How can you shoot women and children?
Door Gunner: Easy. You just don't lead 'em so much.
[Laughs] Ain't war hell?
Here Anton Furst's otherwise excellent production design gets a
little sloppy, as the CH-34s look a little too clean and newly painted.
At a mass grave of 20 dead Vietnamese a colonel approaches Joker
and one of the best interlocutions in the film ensues:
Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor?
Joker: A peace symbol, sir.
Colonel: Where did you get it?
Joker: I don't remember sir.
Colonel: What is that you've got written on your helmet?
Joker: "Born to Kill," sir.
Colonel: You write "Born to Kill" on your helmet
and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some
kind of sick joke?
Joker: No sir.
Colonel: What is it supposed to mean?
Joker: I don't know, sir.
Colonel: You don't know very much, do you?
Joker: No sir.
Colonel: You better get your head and your a-- wired together
or I will take a giant s--- on you.
Joker: Yes, sir.
Colonel: Now answer my question or you'll be standing tall
before the man.
Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the
duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Joker: The duality of man, the Jungian thing, sir.
Colonel: Whose side are you on son?
Joker: Our side, sir.
Colonel: Don't you love your country?
Joker: Yes, sir.
Colonel: How about getting with the program? Why don't
you jump on the team and c'mon in for the big win?
Joker: Yes, sir.
Colonel: Son, all I've ever asked of my Marines is for them
to obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here
to help the Vietnamese because inside every gook there is an American
trying to get out. It's a hardball world, son. We've
got to try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.
In Phu Bai, Joker and Rafterman join a squad whose members are interviewed
on camera by a news reporter. The theme of Vietnamese ingratitude
reappears when a black private states, "We're getting killed
for these people and they don't appreciate it. They think
it's a big joke. We're shooting the wrong gooks."
The best line of course goes to Joker: "I wanted to see
exotic Vietnam, the jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet
interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture and kill
far Joker's intelligence, smugness, and cynicism have been effective
in keeping Hartman's indoctrination and the encroaching war madness
at bay. He has survived boot camp, avoided an infantry assignment,
and gone to work in the clean and orderly world of Stars and
Stripes. His insularity from the collective unconscious
and its war madness, though, is eventually broken. In Hue
City, after three members of his squad are picked off by a VC sniper,
the squad hunts down the sniper who turns out to be a young Vietnamese
girl. The wounded girl begs the squad members watching her
die to shoot her out of her misery. Joker obliges by shooting
her in the face. He has now met his rite of passage, crossing
over from ambivalent peacenik to cold killer.
final scene of the movie is Kubrick's visual brilliance at its best.
Joker's squad approaches the Perfume River among formations of other
marching troops singing the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club.
They march lockstep in neat, perfectly spaced formations among row
after row of flaming buildings. Around them the entire set
looks like a fiery plane of Hell. The movie ends with Joker
echoing Private Lawrence's last words: "In short, I am
in a world of s---, yes, but I am alive and I am not afraid."
Unlike Private Lawrence, Joker survives the breaking of his individuality
and absorption into the collective archetype of war madness.
His futile resistance was Kubrick's "private joke" all
Dale Steinreich and Rod Oglesby [send
them mail] are professors of business and contributors
to the investment advisory AgainstTheCrowd.com.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com