Monday, November 22, 2010

On Learning to Live with the Machine

What did audiences in 1957 think of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory?

The film is incredibly dark and moody, nearly every scene oozes with overt cynicism about the absurdity of war and the shallowness of patriotism. Such sentiments seem out of place with our image of the 1950s as safe and sterile. After all, people still believed then. There was no Vietnam, no cultural upheaval and the gradual unraveling of the public trust in officialdom that accompanied both had not yet begun.

Of course, the notion that cynicism was invented in the 1960s is little more than an oft repeated untruth. The requisite horrors of the First World War produced a decade of commentators and artists who ruefully referred to the Great Lie that lay behind the conflict (Gertrude Stein would famously call some of them the “Lost Generation”).

Kubrick could have chosen the easy route with Paths of Glory and simply added his voice to an already impressive chorus with yet another anti-war missive about an armed conflict that seems to make less sense the further time advances from it. Instead, he decided to utilize the incredible lethality of the war – in which there were more than 38 million combat casualties – to present a simple but powerful tale that explores the mathematical ruthlessness of bureaucracy and the ways in which power dehumanizes many of the men who possess it.

This last point is made clear when a pair of French generals meet in the film’s first scene to discuss the possibility of a new offensive. At first, Gen. Mireau resists his commanding officer’s entreaties to attack a German fortification known as the Anthill, saying that he cares too much for his men and will not order them to lose their lives making such a pointless attack. However, when the possibility of promotion is dangled in front of Mireau, he quickly loses sight of the men as anything other than a means to an end and agrees to the attack.  

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, frontline commander caught between Mireau and the other clueless generals and France’s brave but dispirited soldiers in the trenches. Dax knows Mireau’s order to take the Anthill is a non-starter, but he also knows resisting the order is futile. When the subsequent attack is predictably driven back by heavy German machinegun fire, an enraged Mireau blames the offensive’s failure on group cowardice and orders 100 of Dax’s men to be hauled in front of a firing squad and shot.

Eventually, Mireau is forced to accept a deal in which one soldier from each of the division’s companies will be randomly selected and tried for cowardice. At the trial, Dax does his best to defend the trio of unlucky men, but the hopelessness of resisting the gears of a military bureaucracy that believes more in chugging toward a conclusion than it does in contemplating the character of its actions leads to a verdict that is never really in doubt.

In the film’s penultimate scene, a captured German girl is forced to sing to the French troops. At first, the French jeer her and shout obscenities, but as the girl continues to sing “The Faithful Hussar,” the men slowly are cowed into silence by the sweetness of her voice and eventually they begin to hum the tune, not knowing the words. Equally disturbing and moving, the scene reminds us that for all the pessimism present in Kubrick’s films, he understands the universality of beauty and believes that it transcends nationality and ideology. That it takes a scared refugee to remind the soldiers of their own humanity – and indeed, the humanity of the Huns on the other side of no man’s land – is perhaps the film’s most ironic and subtle moment.

Much of the rest of Paths of Glory suffers from obviousness: Its heroes and villains are far too easy to identify and the complete lack of unexpected choices in the plot places the audience in the awkward position of constantly knowing more about what will happen than the characters do. Even so, one cannot deny the power of the injustice documented in this film. And I am not sure we will ever see a more frightening depiction of the heartless efficiency present in large, bureaucratic administrations.

Kubrick, of course, would go on to make better films, but no one can deny that this effort remains an authoritative opening argument from an artist who uses the medium of cinema to ask his audiences essential questions about the human condition.

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