The Set-Up: The Kubrick Trap. There are those who see it as a maze, but it is usually more lethal than that. People don't just lose their way...they're constantly being threatened with losing themselves...or their lives. The machinations that threaten to grind the souls in Kubrick's movies take many forms: they may be societal or social—political systems, class systems—military, technological, even supernatural. They may even be hard-wired into the folds and curves of the protagonists' grey-matter (talk about your mazes!). And the people who populate in the chess-master Kubrick's films are merely pawns to those designs.
But even pawns can occasionally take a King.
Because I don't talk about Stanley Kubrick enough,* I'll be putting up some scenes from Kubrick films over the year that show those traps being set. This one is one of the best, from an early film in Kubrick's career—Paths of Glory—a controversial** small-budget film set during World War I, for which Kubrick had the luck to get a star the caliber of Kirk Douglas to star.*** Paths of Glory tells the story of one attack that goes wrong, slipshod in planning and impossible in execution. The general whose idea it was to launch it in the first place is outraged and humiliated that the troops could not pull it off. And so he decides to set an example by court-martialing and executing members of the troop. He cynically decides that he will bury the evidence, blaming the men for the failure, and blustering his demands for satisfaction. He has the power and he will use it. In the chateau headquarters of the generals, the war is a game of advancement, and General Mireaux will not fall on his sword for anyone.
This meeting, directly after the attack, is a triangulation between strata of power—Mireaux will dress down his subordinate, Dax—in command of the troop—in front of the older, craftier General Broulard, who serves as referee, negotiator and Master of Ceremonies. Broulard is a political animal in the military game, assuaging egos, keeping his eye on both The Big Picture and his ambitious subordinates. Far from the front, he specializes in watching his back. He is the master manipulator by not choosing sides—other than his own. Mireaux, however, is a martinet—vain, egotistical and callous, seeing the war as a personal stepping stone for advancement and his greater glory. Dax, on the other hand, is literally in the trenches, making due with the situation as it is handed to him. Orders are orders, but orders come from men and men are flawed.
But you can't say that. Not to the men who control your life...and see lives as disposable...and a means to an end. So, Dax is in the uncomfortable position of being caught between the men who depend on him and the men who don't care. He is fighting two fronts: the simpler fight at the trenches with a common enemy with its deadly consequences, and the more complicated political fight above, with the men who control all Fates.
The fight for the Ant Hill done (a spectacular sequence, shot with only two simultaneously running cameras, Kubrick concentrates next on the fallout, away from the close-quarter muddied trenches and the chaos of the battlefield, in the immaculately airy rooms of the Neoclassic French headquarters that don't look like they've ever seen the destruction of war. Kubrick stages it literally for its triangulation (as he will stage the subsequent court-martial as a chess-match) The set-ups reflect the politics and advantages of the argument and the participants' relative position in it. Isolating medium shots of individuals. Close-ups for emphasis. Bonding two-shots (if one can call it bonding).
The editing more closely follows reactions than words (as usual, with the Sunday "Scene" we put the dialog only contained in the individual shots, and here the dialogue is pointedly broken up, emphasizing the visual rather than the dialog), eyes darting from one man to the other searching for political advantage, seeking the important "two against one." Even when Mireaux is at his most emotional ("For cowardice!"), Kubrick is focussing on the reactions of Dax and Boulard, the former surprised and outraged while the latter looks away, betraying a slight embarrassment at the out-burst and Mireaux's lack of civility. Kubrick saves his most looming close-up for Broulard, who must finally rein in Mireaux's self-pitying melodrama ("I was talking of [executing] a hundred men. Now we're down to 12.")for the sake of a compromise that neither of the other two parties is comfortable with.
And the dialogue is blunt, direct and brutal...but not without insinuating nuance. A product of Kubrick, Calder Willingham and early Kubrick collaborator Jim Thompson—he of the brutal pulp fiction novels, including The Killer Inside Me, it reflects Thompson's ability to see the worst in people and have them express it without their having any sense of self-examination or discretion—the ultimate in ego, bordering on pathology. The frankness of the dialogue—despite the political under-pinning that restrict it—has a tension all its own; add Kubrick's insistence on focussing on the reactions to it and you have a very full, very tense scene of one-ups-manship. Production will be starting soon on Lunatic at Large, a "lost" Kubrick project,**** written by Thompson in the late 50's.
The Story: The French attack on The Ant Hill, an insignificant scrap of land save for advantage and the vain-glorious ambitions of General Mirieuax (George Macready) has not gone well. Led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the infantry were cut down almost immediately—some of the men not even able to leave the trenches. Incensed, Mirieuax even attempted to have French guns fire on the troops to provoke them. The aftermath of the battle is a de-briefing and dressing down of the Colonel by Mirieux in the luxurious headquarters of General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), both mens' superior and a particularly political military man.
MIREAUX: I ordered an attack. Your troops refused to attack.
DAX: Our troops did attack, sir, but they could make no headway.
MIREAUX: Because they didn't try, Colonel. I saw it myself. Half of your men never left the trenches.
DAX: A third of my men were pinned down because the fire was so intense.
MIREAUX: Don't quibble over fractions, Colonel.
MIREAUX: The fact remains that a good part of...
MIREAUX: ...your men never left their own trenches. Colonel Dax, I'm going to have ten men from each company in your regiment tried under penalty of ...
MIREAUX: ...death for cowardice.
DAX: Penalty of death? -
MIREAUX: For cowardice!
MIREAUX: They've skim milk in their veins instead of blood.
DAX: It's the reddest milk I've ever seen. My trenches are soaked with it!
MIREAUX: That's just about enough out of you.
DAX: Well, I'm not going to mince words and stand by when--
MIREAUX: Colonel Dax...
MIREAUX: ...If you continue in this manner, I shall be forced to place you under arrest.
BROULARD: I believe the colonel has a point, even though he makes it rather bluntly. This is not a trial...
BROULARD: ...but it does bear certain aspects of one, and Colonel Dax technically is cast...
BROULARD: ...in the role of the defense. In view of the gravity of the charges, a court of law would grant him all possible latitude in...
BROULARD: ...presenting his case.
MIREAUX: Latitude is one thing, insubordination another.
BROULARD: I am merely offering an opinion, General. Please do not feel constrained to accept it.
MIREAUX: I'm perfectly willing to accept it, General Broulard.
DAX: I'm sorry, sir. I certainly didn't intend to be insubordinate.
DAX: My only aim is to remind you of the heroism these men have shown on every...
DAX: ...occasion in the past.
MIREAUX: We're not talking about the past. We're talking about the present.
DAX: But don't you see, sir? They're not cowards, so if some didn't leave the trenches, it must have been because it was impossible.
MIREAUX: They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that order.
MIREAUX: We can't leave...
MIREAUX: They're scum, Colonel. The whole...
MIREAUX: ...rotten regiment is a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.
DAX: Do you really believe that, sir?
MIREAUX: Yes, I do. That's exactly what I believe. And...
MIREAUX: ...what's more, it's an incontestable fact.
DAX: Then why not shoot the entire regiment?
DAX: I'm perfectly serious.
BROULARD: Well, now, Colonel, you're missing the point entirely. We don't want to slaughter the French army. All we want to do is to set an example.
DAX: ...most responsible for the attack.
BROULARD: Come now, Colonel. I think you're overwrought.
BROULARD: This is not a question of officers.
BROULARD: Paul, we don't want to overdo this thing.
BROULARD: Suppose we just make it a dozen.
MIREAUX: I was talking of a hundred men. Now we're down to 12.
BROULARD: Paul, let's not haggle over this anymore.
BROULARD: Let's get it settled once and for all...
BROULARD: ...so we can all live with it.
MIREAUX: Well, perhaps I was a bit too anxious to see proper justice meted out. I've spent my entire life in the army. I've always tried to be true...
MIREAUX: ...to my principles. It's the only mistake I can ever be...
MIREAUX: ...accused of. I'll settle for this: Have the company commanders select one man from each company in the first wave. Three...
MIREAUX: ...in all.
BROULARD: Well, that's very reasonable of you, Paul.
BROULARD: The court martial will meet at the chateau at 3:00 this afternoon.
MIREAUX: Will that be...
MIREAUX: ...convenient for you, General? -
BROULARD: Oh, I won't be there, Paul.
MIREAUX: You won't be there?
BROULARD: No. I think it best that you handle this matter on your own.
MIREAUX: Probably so.
DAX: General Mireau,
MIREAUX: I'll take the matter under consideration.
BROULARD: Oh, we can permit that, Paul.
BROULARD: Consider it settled, Colonel.
DAX: Thank you, sir.
BROULARD: Noon straight up, Paul. I hope that you can stay for lunch, Colonel.
DAX: Thank you for your courtesy, General, but I'm afraid there isn't much time between now and 3:00.
BROULARD: Of course, Colonel. I shall look forward to the pleasure of seeing you again.
Dax snaps a salute, and exits the room.
Paths of Glory
Words by Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham and Stanley Kubrick
Pictures by Georg Krause and Stanley Kubrick
Paths of Glory is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Entertainment and on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.
* This is sarcasm. If anything, I talk about Kubrick and his films too much, and I try to avoid it.
** Because of its harsh depiction of the French military, it was banned in France—and if it was shown at Cannes, no doubt Kubrick would have been made "persona non grata," as Lars von Trier was this year.
*** Subsequently, Douglas, when producing Spartacus, replaced director Anthony Mann (no slouch in the directing department) with his young "find," Kubrick. The experience created a fine film, but soured Kubrick from ever making a "Hollywood" picture again. From then on, it would be his projects—his rules.
**** Literally, it seems. Kubrick was going to film it after collaborating with Marlon Brando on the pre-production of One Eyed Jacks but Spartacus became his next project. Then, amidst his notes and papers and books on just about everything, the script was misplaced—something that Kubrick, it is reported, always regretted.