The futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack.Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
Just before the German girl sings, the soldiers begin to cheer and whistle enthusiastically. In Europe, unlike in the US, whistling is a way of showing displeasure, like booing. See more »
Narrator of opening sequence:
War began between Germany and France on August 3rd 1914. Five weeks later the German army had smashed its way to within eighteen miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River and in a series of unexpected counterattacks drove the Germans back. The front was stabilized then shortly afterwards developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss ...
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Although Kubrick's films are marked by their massive variation of genre and tone, one theme that crops up again and again is a strong anti-war sentiment, and this was never stated more strongly than in Paths of Glory. A relatively early Kubrick picture and, despite coming before what is considered his classic period, it is one of his best.
In contrast to his previous picture, The Killing, a definite Kubrick style is beginning to emerge now. One notable example is the scene in which General Mireau tours the trenches, walking towards the audience with the camera retreating away from him. This technique would be repeated years later in Kubrick's other war film, Full Metal Jacket. There is also something about the arrangement of objects in the frame, as well the tracking and dollying which hints towards his more familiar later style. His recurring chess motif appears as well, albeit subtly. At the court martial the floor is chequered, and the soldiers on trial are seated with guards standing behind them as if they are pawns about to be sacrificed.
The light and contrast in this picture is put to good effect. The palatial officers' headquarters is light and airy with few shadows. The trenches are gloomy and cramped. Kubrick was becoming a real master at contrasting locations and getting the look of a place just right.
The use of music in Paths of Glory is bold and brilliant. The pre-recorded score is almost entirely percussive all rhythmic sounds with no melody. A weird kettle drum track is used to help build tension in the night patrol scene, while in the climactic scene the funeral march drumming instills a sense of dread, further heightened by having the shots edited in time to the beat. In the emotional final scene we get the complete opposite a beautiful vocal melody. This has all the more impact after hearing nothing but militaristic drums for the rest of the film.
The casting is absolutely flawless. While there are no big names apart from leading man Kirk Douglas and the now elderly Adolphe Menjou, there isn't a single weak performance. The despair and resentment of the condemned soldiers feels so absolutely real. In contrast the smugness and fake sympathy of the upper class officers is brilliantly portrayed.
Throughout his career Kubrick never seemed to be particularly keen on blatantly emotional moments. Paths of Glory is the exception. The later scenes are incredibly poignant and moving, and the final moments in the soldier's bar are what makes it a masterpiece more than anything else the icing on the cake. However it's quite probable that Kubrick regretted this as an overly sentimental approach, as woolly sentimentalism was a major gripe of his when he worked on Spartacus. Whatever the case, he certainly reined in the stirring stuff considerably after this, to the point where his later films became characterised by their understatement of emotions.
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