The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paths of Glory

What is the sign of an effective anti-war film? What's the mark of a successful entry? ANGER. Frustration. A struggle to believe what you're watching could have actually happened. One of the first American anti-war films is also one of the best, and in general, one of the best movies ever made. If you haven't seen it already, shame on you. Go watch it. Here's 1957's Paths of Glory.

It's 1916 and World War I has been waging for two-plus years. The fighting has bogged down to a standstill, the two sides blasting away from their trenches at each other across no man's land. A French offensive is in the works with one battalion, commanded by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), assigned a key point in the German line. Under extreme machine gun fire, the attack is a failure, Dax's men returning to their own trenches. Someone must answer for the failure though, especially when the division commander (George Macready) demands retribution for the colossal failure. He wants men shot and court-martialed with the high command settling on three men. Three of Dax's men will be charged with cowardice in battle and sit before a court martial tribunal. A well-known criminal lawyer, Dax will defend them...but even the experienced lawyer can't know what awaits.

What a freaking movie. From director Stanley Kubrick (maybe you've heard of him), 'Glory' deserves its place as one of the great war films of all-time but also as one of the best films of all-time in general. Just in terms of story, it is ahead of its time. The cynical, disbelieving tone of its story seems far more in-tune with the late 1960's or the entire decade of the 70's, not the late 1950's. Technically speaking, it is damn perfect from beginning to end. If there's an obvious, glaring weakness, I'm missing it! A phenomenal movie.

The anti-war message is uncomfortable to the point the film is difficult to watch at times. While 'Glory' isn't based on any single incident, stories like this no doubt happened in World War I and countless other wars. Douglas' Dax finds himself defending three innocent soldiers -- Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel -- who will be tried (and potentially worse) for cowardice in battle. He is met at every turn with resistance, countered by men uninterested in a real defense, battling selfish, egotistical maniacs who think solely of themselves, of glory and honor, of promotions and personal gain. If those gains are built on battlefields of men who didn't have to die...well, so be it. Kubrick's film does not pull a single punch. This is war. This is death. This is so much worse than you could have imagined it.

A star before and a star after, Douglas is at his all-time best here with a performance that definitely belongs at the top of his career. His Colonel Dax is a capable officer, a more than capable lawyer, but most of all, he's simply a good man. He's honest, an idealist and genuinely looks out for the well-being of his men. Dax is sick of war but knows the quicker it's over, the quicker he and his men can go him. Douglas does a lot with an understated part -- calm, cool and collected -- as he bides his time. It is in the final act that Douglas gets to stretch his legs with a fiery, pissed-off, beyond frustrated, beyond anger performance that resonates long after the movie's over. Dax's fire and passion shows through best in an outburst as he condemns the actions of one of the selfish, clueless commanding officer who remains oblivious to anything and everything around him. But kudos to Douglas though with a performance that allows him the chance to show off the full scope of his ability.

This is Douglas' film, no doubt, but there's strong performances all over. Adolphe Menjou and Macready are terrifying as the upper-crust commanding officers who look at war with a sort of fog covering their eyes. No one could be this selfishly inept, could they? Their scenes show the depths of their ignorance, of an old-fashioned way of looking at war. Equally despicable are Richard Anderson and Wayne Morris as two officers, both ignorant in their own ways; Anderson with his haughty arrogance, Morris his drunken cowardice. In Meeker, Turkel and Carey, we get the gamut of reactions, seeing how different individuals respond to a situation so hopeless and stupid that it baffles the mind. When nothing at all makes sense, how do you rationalize such a profoundly stupid decision made by countless people seemingly smart enough and powerful enough to know that decision simply shouldn't be made?

Released 11 years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey is usually remembered as Kubrick's best, usually followed by A Clockwork Orange. I think 'Paths' belongs with 1960's Spartacus as the director's best. Just 29 years old at the time, Kubrick already shows what an immense talent he is behind the camera. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave movement, Kubrick's camera becomes an additional character, especially in beautiful unedited, long takes navigating the claustrophobic frontline trenches. We're there with the troops in the bloody, muddy, rat-infested trenches. Going over the top into the death zone known as 'no man's land' is far worse though where men are chewed up and spit out by the hundreds and thousands. Then, we're off to gargantuan French mansions, the picture of decadence and elegance, where the high command makes all their brilliant decisions. The musical score is minimalist to say the least, all the focus on the performances.

Just too many memorable moments to mention. Basically any scene in the trench is memorable, a perfect example of how to film an uninterrupted tracking shot. The attack scenes are harrowing, and the courtroom scenes -- in those French mansions -- make you feel physically ill as you watch the court martial develop. Emile Meyer is memorable as a priest desperately trying to click with the potentially-condemned men, and Turkel is a scene-stealer in a dialogue-heavy scene talking about how soldiers want to die. Through it all, Meeker is at his career-best as the soldier who finds himself on trial for all the wrong reasons. It all leads to one of the more memorable moments I can think of in a war film, anti-war or not. Filmed at an expansive German villa, an extended military procession is an incredible sequence to watch, both aesthetically and emotionally.

An all-timer. One of the greats and a film every movie fan should see at least once.

Paths of Glory (1957): ****/****


  1. Nice review. It's a great flick for sure, but a bit too strident in its antiwar message. I've always preferred Breaker Morant.

  2. morant is pretty strident but more of the exestential athiest nature of things concerning the philosophy of war, and the bravery of holding hands before death.

    this is one of the greatest movies ever FILMED. kirk isn't really even the star and mr dimple has to dawn all the covers, including the criterion. ralph meeker, joe turkel and timothy carey should be on that cover, dang it.

    and as for anti-war, this is about THE FRENCH; always remember that peepholes!!!!

  3. I've never watched Breaker Morant, have to add it to my list! I'll agree, 'Paths' isn't subtle but it works for me! I ain't too subtle...

  4. I don't know what the French comment is in aid of; they can be pro- or antiwar as much as anyone. Don't mention Algeria to a Frenchman!

    Maybe strident's the wrong word, since as Jim says it could apply to either film, but Morant's more morally complex, dealing with characters who ARE guilty but were also following immoral orders. Paths of Glory is about naked innocents victimized by evil officers, pretty typical polemic. I enjoy Douglas's performance and the great set pieces more than the story. I really don't want to go overboard criticizing a movie that I still like a lot.