Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: Kubrick’s Path to Glory

(SPOILERS) Who has the moral high ground on the battlefield? Is there any place for morality during war? With Paths of Glory, director Stanley Kubrick attempted to answer these questions, using dynamic lighting, juxtapositional editing, economical mise en scene, and archetypal characters to symbolize good and evil, and in so doing defined himself as one of the 20th century’s most important and elemental filmmakers.
The film is shot in black and white, or rather black or white; there is no gray area, an absence which represents the moral absoluteness of the characters. When General Mireau tours the trenches, he is brightly lit and clean, whereas the soldiers are dirty and mostly in the shadows. Since we have already been introduced to Mireau in a bright, sterile environment, it is almost as if the general is in a bubble, protected from the realities of war by his place in the social order. All of this is achieved simply with lighting. Additionally, when we are first introduced to Col. Dax, our heroic protagonist, he is rather neutrally lit, representing his place as a sort of moral center between the innocent soldiers and the evil general.
Kubrick cuts from scene to scene very abruptly. Frequently, we are taken from Mireau’s great, white, palatial headquarters suddenly to the dirty, claustrophobic trenches where the honest, hardworking soldiers reside for the first third of the film. This is clearly meant to bring our attention to the disparate conditions experienced by the men who give the orders, and those who actually carry out those orders.
Often working in tandem with the editing is Kubrick’s use of very efficient mise en scene. This is most obvious, once again, in the early trench scenes. Take, for example, one of the long, backwards dolly shots of Col. Dax walking through the trenches. We see not only Dax, but also dozens of soldiers going about the business of making war, loading weapons and so on. In the same shot, we can see bombs exploding over head, just outside the trenches. This helps greatly to suggest setting, and quickly and effectively creates a foreboding and oppressive atmosphere. The soldiers are literally under the bombs, just as they are figuratively under the generals, who are equally as lethal and uncaring as the artillery.
Later in the film, during the court martial, Kubrick takes care to arrange the characters in a very specific way. The judges, legal counsel, and various other court officials are grouped tightly together, around a long table; General Mireau, the orchestrator of the whole affair, is nearby, watching and relaxing upon an opulent sofa. This comfortable cabal is placed in great contrast to the three soldiers on trial, who sit several feet away in nondescript chairs. This arrangement is shown to us plainly in a high angle wide shot which looks almost straight down on the scene. The people at the table are one object, while the soldiers are each alone, adrift and helpless. This is brilliant mise en scene, as it is not only immediately informative, but also visually compelling and, perhaps most important of all, symbolic of the various characters’ situations and states of mind.
Col. Dax is clearly good, and General Mireau is obviously bad. There is not much moral ambiguity with regard to the characters in Paths of Glory. Yes, they are both technically on the same “side”, being French officers, with a common enemy in the Germans, but it is obvious within the first reel of the film that the two are opposed; Dax as protagonist, Mireau as antagonist. When we first meet Mireau, he is lounging contentedly in an open, luxurious setting. He discusses tactics and the loss of life so casually that it is difficult to sympathize with him. Later, as he commands the attack on the German Anthill from his safe spot behind the trenches, he screams maniacally and indignantly at his subordinates when they question his order to fire on their own troops. He is so obsessed with winning the war and maintaining discipline that there remains no humanity within him. We are clearly not meant to like this character, and in fact, over the course of the picture, we come to hate him. He is archetypically evil.
Col. Dax, on the other hand, is always presented sympathetically; he is modeled after the righteous hero archetype. When we are introduced to him, he is shirtless, his bare skin meant to represent his innate humanity. Additionally, he is always on the side of his troops; he openly challenges his superiors in defense of his men, first in the trenches, then more formally as their legal counsel in the courtroom. This animosity between French officers rather than between nations is driven home by the fact that we do not actually see any krauts until the very end, when the sweet, angelic German girl is made to sing in a rowdy tavern, causing the drunken French soldiers, and the film itself, to take on a sobering silence. We realize that this story was never about French vs German, but instead about the lower class foot soldiers vs the aristocratic high command, and, in a broader sense, the righteous human spirit vs the madness and folly of war.
Does Col. Dax gain the moral high ground on General Mireau by defending the three men accused of cowardice? If so, what does he accomplish? The men are still found guilty and thence executed. Perhaps nothing is accomplished, save only to show the world that war cannot completely crush every person’s humanity and compassion. Whatever the case, with Paths of Glory, as he would with all of his subsequent work, Stanley Kubrick showed that he had a fundamental understanding of the power of film and how to harness its various elements, be they lighting, mise en scene, or editing, to create a singular, visceral cinematic experience.

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