CINEMA’S GREATEST SCENES: #8 PATHS OF GLORY
Every Friday I’m going to be highlighting and analysing some of cinema’s greatest scenes, or sequences depending on your definition. Some will be familiar, etched indelibly into the iconography of cinema, while others will be obscurer moments worthy of wider circulation and attention. This week’s entry is Stanley Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas led anti-war film Paths of Glory…
* Spoilers Ahead *
The Film: Paths of Glory (1957)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The Background: Set in WWI, we’re privy to wartime discussions between French generals in an ostentatious and lavish château (later seen as the backdrop for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad). Under General Georges Broulard’s (Adolphe Menjou) lure of promotion, General Mireau (George Macready) agrees to order his troops on a suicidal mission to claim a heavily defended German outpost known as the ‘Anthill’. Broulard relays the orders to his division and their Régiment Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Despite protests that such a mission will lead to nothing but disaster and heavy losses, Dax reluctantly leads the charge over the trenches to take the ‘Anthill’.
What Makes it Great?
Anyone familiar with Kubrick’s work will instantly recognise the use of his much loved and utilised tracking shot in the scene. Instead of Alex Delarge drifting dismissively through a record shop or Jack Torrance stalking the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, we have the robust Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax fearlessly navigating the winding trenches. It’s a striking use of the reverse tracking shot in the context of the mission that’s about to commence. Often this type of shot creates a sense of mystery and heightened tension from the fact we’re unclear as to where the character is heading, but in the case of Paths of Glory his destination is unequivocally clear; Dax is striding to almost certain death.
The nihilistic nature of his mission juxtaposes with his own calm, confident, demeanour. The shot remains steadily focused on Dax’s face where, despite the prospect of probable death, he’s completely unmoved and totally valiant leading his men. His brisk pace, which dictates the camera’s movement, and steely concentration, untroubled by the explosions overhead, show a man completely in control. The only time he does break stride and stare is to check the time, a sign of his exceptional conduct in the face of his absurd fate
While the reverse tracking shot allows us to observe Dax, a never more fitting use of Kirk Douglas’s chiselled countenance, in his stately calmness, the reversion to a classic point of view tracking shot depicts the contrasting fear in the troops. Stylistically these tracking shots resemble archive documentary footage as the troops huddle solemn and dejected along the trench walls. The disparity between the unflappable Dax and his quietly terrified men is abundantly clear during the cut between two bombs going off; Dax marches on without breaking stride while the men recoil in shock and cower for safety. The soldiers look to Dax for hope and leadership and that’s exactly what he offers. When he does eventually head over the top, Dax approaches the task of leading his men headlong into bullets and bombs with a rather blasé matter of factness. Taking calm steps forward Dax, whistle clasped between his teeth, waves his men on with the urgency of an exacerbated football coach, totally unphased by the occasion.
Kubrick once again succumbs to the allure of the spectacular tracking shot when following Dax and the troops across No Man’s Land. The wide angled side scrolling shot of the soldiers traversing the jagged battle scarred terrain catches the full scale of the attack and heightens the unrelenting emphasis on progress. It also cleverly frames the soldiers to resemble ants quite literally scurrying to their anthill. The irony of course is that we know from earlier scenes that the French generals value their men’s lives as little more significant than that of an insect.
As the tracking shots mirror the progress of the troops it’s fitting that they stop when Dax and his division become pinned down in their position. The camera sits static before zooming in on the prone Dax, his face an ambiguous mix of determination and hopelessness, as he looks towards their goal. We only see Dax’s face for a split second but it confirms that the soldier’s valiant charge towards the enemy has been futile. His rush of adrenaline subsides and Dax is left facing reality, knowing to go any further would be self-destructive in the extreme. The next cut endorses our suspicions as the camera slumps to the floor and watches as bodies begin to pile up around it. Kubrick’s vision of brutal realism for the attack, enacted by his cinematographer Georg Krause, is a direct forerunner, and I expect influence, on Spielberg’s acclaimed Omaha beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
The sequence opens dramatically, via the tracking shot, as Dax marches through the trenches rallying his troops into a mission with odds of a million to one, yet by the end even Dax, the epitome of grit and determination, is forlorn and defeated. Kubrick’s satirical take on war is hammered home through the sequence’s choice of shots. War has long been glamourised as noble and patriotic which is mirrored in Kubrick’s choice to initially use dramatic tracking shots that present the attack as an epic, almost legendary event. However, by the end of the sequence the shots have become static and mired in No Man’s Land surrounded by fallen soldiers. A later shot, after the above clip, is a superb counterpoint to the opening trench tracking shot. From a static viewpoint we now see Dax bolting down the trenches flanked by dead soldiers, the camera lingering on the desolate alley way long after Dax has turned the corner.The heroic myth of war that we’re led to applaud and honour has been shattered by the harrowing reality; death, trauma and suffering litter the so called Paths of Glory.