Three Cheers for the Great Stanley Kubrick

Paths of Glory (1957) Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Full Metal Jacket (1987)

We will 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 at War

The 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.

Kubrick 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.   

After 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 Spartacus (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 death.  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.

Paths 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 expos 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.

The 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. 

Watching 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. 

The 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."     

One 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 betrayal. 

Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) 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 to saboteurs. 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 mad Ripper. 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.      

The 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. 

Of 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 Fhrer .  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 climax.  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. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full 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. 

Act 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, "You know 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.

Act 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:"

Joker:  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 them."

So 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. 

The 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 along.

March 7, 2003