Years ago, when I discovered Fiona hadn’t seen PATHS OF GLORY and we watched it together, she put into words something I had felt about the film but not articulated — “It’s not just a war film, it’s about really big things — LIFE and DEATH!” Indeed, for us the film really kicked into its strongest phase after the three soldiers have been sentenced to death (off-camera, in a bold elision) and have to face their mortality (calling to mind Woody Allen’s speech from LOVE AND DEATH: “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer.”)
Like Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel, we have three choices about facing death — we can weep and pray, we can put on a brave face, or we can be unconscious when it happens. And ultimately it could be said to make little difference. “Pull yourself together — is this how you want to be remembered?” asks Bert Freed. “I don’t want to die,” replies Meeker, reasonably.
I just ran the movie for students ahead of a visiting lecture by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer — one remarked that it was sweet to see Turkel being so nice, since in his most famous roles, THE SHINING and BLADE RUNNER, he’s kind of sepulchral and sinister. True, he does punch a priest in the face, but that’s not too unsympathetic by this film’s lights, and to be fair the priest was a bit annoying. By casting Emile Meyer, usually a heavy, with his pugilistic, clapped-in face, Kubrick somehow mitigates the anti-clerical brutality — you couldn’t slug the padre from MASH without losing audience respect, but somehow Meyer is fair game. When Meyer protests that he wants “to help you, with all my power!” Turkel responds, “You HAVE no power!” which is true, as far as the immediate problem goes. It’s the best bit of defrocking dialogue outside of THE GREEN ROOM, where Truffaut yells that what the bereaved want from the church is the immediate resurrection of their loved ones, and anything less is an unforgivable tease. Unreasonable, you might say, but not when you take into account the authority these dudes claim to represent.
Despite starring Chin Cleft himself (introduced shirtless, as was his wont), and being produced by his company, the film is really an ensemble piece (a fact emphasised even further by the tacked-on conclusion, in which Kirk is merely a passive witness), and everybody is really good. James Mason, impressed enought to take on LOLITA, nevertheless felt that the American accents let it down, which is objectively silly, but I guess the custom for using Brit to represent the entire non-American world was strongly established. Having gone for Yanks, Kubrick pushes it pretty far, with Meyer’s Bowery bum whine (wait, he was from Louisiana?) and Jerry Hausner’s bold reading of “What is life widout a liddle divoijshen?” and, of course, Timothy Carey.
Listening to the film’s producer, James B. Harris, in Lyon, my NATAN co-director Paul Duane picked up lots of great stuff about Carey faking his own kidnapping on location and other typical crazy shit. John Baxter cites the story of someone questioning Kubes why he kept hiring Carey. “He can’t act!” Kubrick replied that he wanted either the best actor in the world, or a brilliant type. (Exemplified by DR STRANGELOVE — when Peter Sellers dropped out of the role of Major Kong, the director went straight for Dan Blocker and then Slim Pickens, genuine examples of what Sellers was to have imitated.) And it’s true — Carey carries his own reality with him, a beat-up beatnik doziness that anchors him in every scene. If he can’t quite do everything the script calls for, and has a slight tendency to strike poses (hilarious vanity in one with his lizard-lidded zombie face), his essential Timothy-Carey-ness keeps him credible, like the way a small child, or a very old person, or a dog is always believable on-screen even if they can’t act.
Who else? Wayne Morris, a real-life WWII hero, is great as the drunken coward Roget (the script, partly written by alcoholic Jim Thompson, tends to equate boozing with vice, until the third act when everybody swears by it). My late friend Lawrie said used to drink with him– I can’t work out when this occurred, since Morris doesn’t seem to have had a British career. And the bad guys — Adolphe Menjou, whose rapid-fire delivery makes him the worst casualty of the boxy sound recording in vast halls — George MacReady, whose psychotic villainy keeps rising to new levels of outrageous hypocrisy, and that’s his arc — Richard Anderson, who probably oversells his sliminess early on and his doubt later — and Peter Capell, who plays the presiding judge at the court martial, and scores by buttering the most prejudiced and insanely unjust comments with a veneer of gentle, paternal reasonableness.
The full quote is “The paths of glory lead to the grave,” hence all those tracking and trucking shots — at the execution, SK dollies over gravel towards the posts the men are to be bound to, and the POV shots heading forwards seem to represent the rush towards Death — three wooden poles marking the end of everything.
For the first time I really thought about what the film would have been like without the musical number from the future Mrs Kubrick at the end. Ending on Kirk’s rugged face as he says, “Because you don’t know the answer to that, I pity you,” would be very strong indeed — the only note of grace being supplied by the lighting, which makes of him a lambent gargoyle-saint. What follows is a brilliantly judged attempt to soften the conclusion without softening the film, beginning with a sequence which actually makes us dislike the French troops we’ve been rooting for all along, developing into the musical montage of faces, magnificently lit again — I wonder how Kubrick got on with his German cinematographer, Georg Krause, who had been active all through the Nazi era? They do great work together. Most of the previous imagery has been figures in landscapes or interiors, Kirk’s big CU at the end of the “real film” starts this cascade of portraits. The best thing about it is it does almost nothing — it doesn’t alleviate the sense of injustice, it almost universalizes it. The final shot of Kirk leaving is pretty bleak and ugly — but isn’t even the last shot, since the end creds are a bunch more portraits.
Obviously PATHS OF GLORY is an emotional film, but it defies WWI movie convention by stirring up our sense of moral outrage rather than trying to break our hearts with the pity of it. It gives the lie to the cliché of Kubrick the emotionless. My friend B. Mite strongly argued that Kubrick was interested in “the emotions that don’t have names” — 2001 stirs up a kind of awe and terror that’s closer to the romantic poets’ response to nature than to anything in Spielberg. It’s cold in a tactile sense — all that black space and ll those white surfaces — but nobody, surely, could watch it without emotion. Even Pauline Kael felt claustrophobic.
The movie has been used by scientists testing the physiological effects of film — it has been shown to make people physically angry. Script guru Phil Parker once pointed out that injustice is a great plot engine, because it seizes and inflames everyone. As the line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS goes, “When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair,’ the child can be believed.”