Moments That Changed Me – Paths of Glory

Posted on 01/04/2011

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And so, tried with the task of choosing the moments in cinema that changed him, his perspective and his view of cinema, he set off into the wilderness of his memories – be they good, bad, wondrous, horrific – and began writing them down. These are the Moments That Changed Me…

 

Paths of Glory – 1957

 

Okay, I have to stop writing these things!

Two blog posts into this topic and another two attempted (both of which died on their arses) around that and a still can’t friggin’ figure out my most significant viewing moment as a film goer! Mainly because new ones seem to spring up every day, as I revisit old favourites, discover new ones, begin whittling down my Top 10 and find myself exposed to what is emerging to be an utter cavalcade of incredible films through this course. Indeed, life is good these days.

But I’ve gotta stop rambling, and I’ve gotta pick one. And here it is.

It’s a film that I’ve been on the hunt for since I first got interested in Kubrick back when 2001 first fucked with my mind in Year 11, and prior to that when The Shining made me absolutely pack my jocks back when I was fourteen. Having recently found it (possibly one of the better $48 purchases I’ve ever made), I put it on, on April Fools Day, 2011.

 

 

Like most film students, I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick admirer, in every sense. It could be the beard, but I doubt it.

Kirk Douglas as Col. Dex

I tend to think that, mainly, it’s the craft of his films; his choice of lenses, his mastery of light both natural and artificial, the precision of his films, his use of classical music, the audacity of his pacing, his daring with the structure of narratives. But there’s something else in his work – something that probably gets missed or shoved aside by the sheer beauty and majesty of his films aesthetically.

Emotion. Kubrick was often accused of being a very cold personality, and maybe he was (watching the documentary A Life In Pictures, Kubrick is a bit of a c— to Shelley Duvall on set in The Shining). I’m fairly certain that the same critics would argue that this seeps over into his films. They would often argue that they feel detached, or distant; focused on style and craft rather than people, protagonists or emotions. You could definitely found a solid argument that 2001: A Space Odyssey is an experience founded on beauty, spectacle and wonder rather than a film with a structure or conflict and all that stuff, an you could maybe do the same for a movie like Barry Lyndon. Both contain people sure, but yeah, they are a bit sterile.

 

You could not, however, argue that Paths of Glory is anything other than a deeply felt, deeply human film. And this – for me – validates what I have always believed about Kubrick; he’s a very compassionate, emotional director.

The men charged with cowardice.

 

Centering on a division the American infantry in World War I, Kirk Douglas plays a colonel ordered to launch an almost impossible attack on a German “ant-hill”; an attack bordering on a suicide mission, riddled with gunfire from above and below the very second the men step out and begin to run, helplessly, towards certain death.

The attack fails outright, largely due to the fact that a good number of Douglas’ troops never leave the trenches, understandably afraid of dying. Douglas and his men are tried under charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy, culminating in an amazing execution scene.

The film is very much about death. The rational fear of death shared by many of the soldiers and the heartbreaking truth that – to your commanding officer, at least – to not want to die is to be a coward, and to not want to kill is to be a traitor.  The men in charge – the men outside of the trenches – are often heard saying things like “Ready to kill some more Germans?” or “Your men die well” or, my personal favourite, “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”

 

It’s rather horrific, in so many ways, but every ounce of violence, evil and hatred is sucked out of the film at the very, very end of the film, where, through a German song, two opposing sides of the war meet, in a seedy underground watering hole, and weep together.

 

The final scene of Paths of Glory

 

The amazing thing that I found, when watching this, is that this one, isolated moment, just on its own, is as touching and beautiful as any modern war film in it’s entirety, and if you’ve found this one moment as incredible as I did, definitely go and seek the film out. You won’t be disappointed.

What Kubrick does so beautifully here is blur two sides of a conflict and make them meet in the middle, totally equal. I believe that the men cry and embrace her innocence for two reasons. Primarily, there is a sense in which – through seeing this beautiful German girl sing whilst fighting back tears of utter fear – the men realise what they have been fighting for; to hurt people exactly like this. The innocent, the pure, the beautiful.

But they also see in her a reminder of their own innocence, and the tragic loss of their own innocence. They see in this girl, the children in all of them; and the children in all of them that has been lost, and there’s a sense of terrible revelation wherein , one by one, in close-up of their distraught faces, humming along to the tune this girls sings, that Kubrick shows that they all seem to understand that all that was kind, decent and innocent in them, is gone through war.

Kubrick does all of that through music, some amazing staging and visuals and an incredible performance from Susanne Christiane (who would later become Christiane Kubrick, his wife until he passed away) and from all of the soldiers.

 

If you can find Paths of Glory, watch it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

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