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