by Eric Eaton
Themes and Structure
In all his works Stanley Kubrick was so much more than a storyteller. Yet, while this fact has been appreciated in 2001 (1968) and to some extent in Barry Lyndon (1975), criticism of his other works has concentrated mainly upon his characters, narratives, and social commentary. For example, the much admired Paths of Glory (1957) has been praised over the decades mostly for the extraordinary economy with which Kubrick has told this story that so bitterly attacks the military. This carefully constructed film of Kubrick’s youth has, however, more in common with 2001 than any other of Kubrick’s works, in that it relies heavily upon complex aesthetic patterns that support and yet to some extent transcend the narrative.
In Paths the story itself — one that concerns the struggle between the generals and the men they command — possessed a natural polarity and symmetry that Kubrick exploited in many ways and on many levels. Within it were numerous fundamental oppositions, among them (1) the enemy and the French; (2) the chateau and trench worlds; (3) the officer class and the enlisted men; (4) the generals and colonel Dax; (5) cynical opportunism and altruistic concern; and (6) lies and truth.
Out of such polarities and conflicts, Kubrick has constructed an overall, multi-leveled structure founded upon a series of confrontations that are reinforced and joined together by “permutations” of patterns formed from camera techniques, images of symmetrical structures, and specific, recurrent images of movement. Moreover, these patterns rest in a matrix provided by a unique system of highly abstract, polarized space.
One limited but useful way of visually conceptualizing this system of abstract space is as a long axis with the French state at one end and the opposing German State at the other (see Figure 1). Although these entities that demark the ends of this axis are alluded to many times and figure so importantly in the action, they are never represented concretely. In fact, the closest the audience has with these entities is in the several glimpses of the remote enemy Anthill, seen through rangefinders, and in the presence of the emissary of the French general staff, General Broulard. Neither the audience nor the characters, then, have any direct contact with these entities that exist in and define the film’s abstract space. They remain remote, mysterious and frightening.
Yet however remote and inaccessible they seem, it is from them that emanate the powerful social forces that determine all lives. For instance, the initial disturbing force that begins the story comes from the French public and state toward the members of the general staff, who with deference to the aroused public decide upon the desperate plan to attack the Anthill. The first concrete actions depicted in the film occur in the chateau, in the middle area of the spatial axis (see Figure 1), when in the first of a long series of confrontations, General Broulard arrives from a meeting of the general staff to persuade General Mireau, a division commander, to order the attack. After this meeting General Mireau then travels to the trench to observe the Anthill and to bully Colonel Dax into leading the attack. The actual attack is, of course, a continuation of the force directed from the French state across the axis toward the Anthill and the German state beyond. But the thrust of the attack never moves beyond the halfway point in no-man’s-land, where it bogs down and disintegrates into a rout as the French regiment is raked by machine gun and artillery fire from the unseen enemy. The film’s action then moves back across the spatial axis to the chateau where occur the trial, the executions, and the final encounters between the generals and Dax.
In short, the spatial axis (see Figure 1) represents the conceptualization of at least two fundamental, polarized properties: (1) abstraction-concretion; and (2) the opposition of the powerful cultural forces emanating from the two states toward the concrete world of struggle and death. The actual story is, then, a sequence of confrontations that occur in the middle or concrete range of the overall system of polarized space. But the film as a whole is not simply a series of such confrontations, but rather a larger whole formed from patterns within patterns of conflict that are all brought together within and through this system of strongly conceived, polarized space.
The conflict and contrast between the worlds of the chateau and the trench were an aspect of the film recognized early by the critics.1 Each of these worlds functions as both a definite place and also as a symbol — the chateau as a symbol of the cold, impersonal system and world of the generals, and the trench as a symbol of the enlisted men and the death they face. The various rooms and “spaces” associated with the chateau and the generals contrast starkly with those associated with the enlisted men and Colonel Dax. The rooms of the chateau are not only very large and luxuriously furnished, but they are also brilliantly illuminated by numerous large windows and doors. Often in filming the generals Kubrick has these windows and doors in the far background, as if to emphasize the abundance of light as well as space. In sharp contrast, the spaces and rooms occupied by the enlisted men and Dax —the trench itself, the dugouts, the regimental command post, Dax’s room, the guardhouse — appear bare, dark, and confining. For instance, when Kubrick films the dark, low-ceiling room of the guardhouse (which is actually a small stable), he has the light entering from one small window in the near background in order to stress the confinement and to give the room the appearance of the inside of a rathole.
Another difference between these two worlds is that the form of the chateau, which is associated with the power of the implacable social system the generals serve, contains many hard, symmetrical and orderly lines. For example, the chateau is surrounded by a large, symmetrical formal garden and park (in which the men will be executed). The forms of the trench world, on the other hand, are composed of chaotic and non-symmetrical lines. That is, the trench itself is surrounded by the strange landscape of shell craters, ruins, and dead bodies—a harsh contrast to the formal garden of the chateau.
Kubrick has also furthered this contrast between these two worlds through use of different lenses. That is, since he photographs the generals mostly with a short lens and the enlisted men and Dax with near normal and even longer lenses, he ends up associating the spatial characteristics of the short lens with the chateau world and those of the normal and longer lenses with Dax, the enlisted men, and the trench world.
The short lens, of course, accentuates the already large spaces of the chateau while its deeper depth of field keeps all the luxurious furnishings in sharp focus. This directs some of the audience’s attention away from the characters to the chateau itself, resulting in the depiction of the generals and their aides as products and aspects of a strongly delineated social environment. On the other hand, when filming the trench world Kubrick has relied mainly on the normal or near normal lens (except for the action in no-man’s-land) and shallow focus; and thus he has accentuated somewhat the spatial confinement while at the same time concentrating on the enlisted men and Dax as individuals.
But Kubrick’s use of camera techniques goes far beyond this chateau-trench world polarity, becoming a vital part of this film’s structure that deserves consideration in itself. For example, Kubrick has used the shorter lenses not only because they exaggerate the perception of the space and the strong line patterns of the chateau, but also because they can be unflattering to the subject and can have a disorienting effect on the viewer. This is especially true when the short lens is combined with low camera angles at psychologically strategic points in the story (e.g., during Mireau’s inspection of the trench, the “toast to success” at Mireau’s observation post, and at the execution). When such a combination is used, the effect is disorienting and the generals appear grotesque and even monstrous. In contrast, Dax is seldom photographed from a low angle. And when this is done, Kubrick uses a normal or moderately long lens, a combination of lens and angle that ennobles his appearance as he pleads during the trial for the lives of his men.
Another interesting aspect of this particular substructure of camera technique is that Kubrick seldom allows an officer to appear alone within the frame. The exceptions are few, such as when the peeved General Mireau plays with his gloves during the trial or when the drunken, cowardly Lieutenant Roget explains the night patrol assignment to Corporal Paris—but even here Kubrick frames Roget’s face with two wine bottles. In short, whereas the officers are often filmed in groups and almost never as individuals, the enlisted men and Dax are depicted numerous times as individuals in medium shots and even in close-ups. This difference seems designed to suggest that the officers overcome the obvious insecurity that drives their ambitions by grouping together as they play their roles within the social system. By contrast, the condemned men and Dax seem unprotected and frustrated, but they stand always as individuals. Consequently, Kubrick has used his camera to contradict the observation that Major Saint-Aubain (General Mireau’s aide) makes about the enlisted men’s strong “herd-instinct” and their tendency to group together in fear.
Images and Patterns
The specific, recurrent images that permeate Paths and reinforce Kubrick’s use of the camera are few in number. One such image is that of recurring spiraling movement through space that builds up to climactic points that are usually shot in close-up. This image occurs in at least three key scenes, in which it is associated with a conflict of wills. The first of these scenes is in the chateau, when General Broulard convinces General Mireau to order the attack against the Anthill. At the opening of this scene, Broulard compliments Mireau on the chateau’s furnishings and especially his taste in carpets. When he mentions the attack, Mireau’s initial response is to comment on its impossibility. Then, as the conversation continues, the two generals begin a circling movement. They come together, walk arm in arm, turning, moving apart, then joining again. The camera tracks the two generals, adding to the overall impression of space and movement in their “little waltz” among the pieces of elegant furniture.2 During this spiraling little dance, Broulard “charms” Mireau into ordering the attack through appeals to his vanity and ambition. And thus the whole of the “dance” moves toward the climactic point (shot from a distance) when Mireau states dramatically that “my men can do anything when they set their minds to it.”
The same image and several other attributes of the “generals’ waltz” appear in the following scene, in which Mireau enters Colonel Dax’s command post at the trench. Just as General Broulard, did Mireau has come to convince a subordinate officer to order an impossible attack — the vital difference is, of course, that Dax must actually lead the attack. Ridiculously Mireau tries the same tactic that Broulard used on him. He begins by complimenting Dax on his accommodations. “A nice little place you have here,” he says as he looks around the extremely cramped, dark, dirty little hole in the ground. When Dax responds with a friendly laugh at what he thinks is a joke, Mireau tries to appeal to his vanity, his ambition, and eventually to his sense of patriotism. When none of these tactics works, Mireau finally coerces Dax into leading the attack by threatening to remove him from command of the regiment for which he is so concerned. That is, whereas Broulard convinces Mireau to accept his plan through an appeal to vanity and ambition, Mireau triumphs over Dax through threats and an appeal to his concern for his men. And during the whole of this scene the action is supported by a variation of the same rhythm and spiraling movement that builds up to a climactic point, as did the earlier confrontation between the generals. Only this time the spiraling movement is much less obvious while the climactic point is of far greater intensity, i.e., a slow, abbreviated spiraling (accomplished through reframing and editing) that moves to a close shot of a frustrated yet determined Dax, who says, “All right. We’ll take the Anthill.”
The same image of spiraling movement that builds up to a climax is also part of the confrontation between Lieutenant Roget and Corporal Paris (a subplot that parallels the main plot in many aspects) after their night reconnaissance. During this argument Paris threatens to reveal Roget’s drunkenness, cowardice, and his killing of one of his own men. The whole of this scene is held within the most subtle variation of the spiraling image and pattern. Instead of an outright spiraling, the two men simply exchange positions several times within the frame in a most unobtrusive manner, forming in effect the spiraling pattern that builds up to a climactic point and close-up of Paris’s face —who incidentally is the character most closely associated with Dax. Within this scene one is reminded of the quiet beauty of the confrontation in Citizen Kane (1941) between Geddes, Susan, Emily, and Kane. Kubrick’s scene has the same quality of “visual music” formed from permutations of images and patterns created through editing and refraining.
But even more important than the spiraling movement is the image formed out of longer, usually horizontal movements across the film’s several polarized spaces which seem miniature replicas of the overall system of space. In all, this complex image of long directed movement holds together, indeed provides the very basis for, at least six key scenes. The shortest and least complex of these is the officers’ ball that immediately precedes the execution. The large ballroom very much resembles the large room in which the three enlisted men were tried and condemned a couple of hours earlier. Only now the flag is absent, and refreshments and musicians have been brought in so that the officers can dance with their ladies while the three condemned men wait in the guardhouse to face the morning firing squad. The action begins when Colonel Dax arrives uninvited for a last attempt at convincing General Broulard to stop the executions. As the space in this scene is conceptualized, Dax arrives at the right of the frame and must send a message to Broulard, who is at the extreme left of the room and frame. A fat little colonel, who seems more a maitre d’hotel than a soldier, carries Dax’s message. The camera tracks the whole of his long walk across the room, as he carefully makes his way, smiling and bowing to the spiraling, waltzing couples. After he gives the message to General Broulard, Broulard walks back through the dancing couples as the camera tracks him across the long room to Dax. In addition to the obvious presence of the major themes and irony, this scene combines feelings of hope and suspense with both the image of horizontal movement through polarized space and the image of spiraling movement. Lastly, in examining this short scene, one also realizes that it is formed from essentially the same location and movement of subject and the same camera angle, position, and movement as are certain tracking shots of Dax in the more complex trial scene which precedes the officers’ ball.
The two inspection scenes at the trench, one by General Mireau and one by Colonel Dax, are also founded on the image of long, straight movement associated with force, conflict, and the film’s abstract, polarized space. The first of these two scenes, General Mireau’s inspection of Dax’s regiment at the trench, is filled with irony that comes mostly from the conflict between pretense and reality. The general, who regards himself as a brave soldier of France, strides along the trench and at regular intervals stops to greet a soldier with the same question: “Hello, soldier. Are you ready to kill some Germans today?” Obviously the men see through his little game, but Major Saint-Auban, the general’s aide and the man who will serve as the prosecutor in the trial, tells the general that his visits to the trench encourage and stimulate the troops.
This entire inspection scene is accompanied by the sound of a martial theme played on a snare drum, and the scene is filmed with a short lens from a low angle. The total effect is slightly disorienting and heavily ironic. Adding to this effect is the fact that the camera photographs the action distantly from in front of the walking general as it tracks and shoots from the low angle. This angle combined with the short lens and camera movement creates, of course, an intense feeling of space and motion in the audience.3 The overall movement of the scene is depicted on the screen as left to right but includes one abrupt camera shift. This occurs toward the end of the scene, when Mireau encounters a soldier who suffers from shell-shock. In anger Mireau slaps the man, and then walks past the momentarily stationary camera, which then cuts to tracking him from behind after he passes. The effect is to portray Mireau as if he is fleeing down the trench after he has struck the soldier.
In many ways Colonel Dax’s inspection of his men in the trench immediately before the attack is a reverse mirror image of General Mireau’s. While the men might fear their colonel as they do the general, they clearly have much respect for him. And whereas the general’s inspection was a public relations gimmick, Colonel Dax inspects the regiment in order to show himself and to give encouragement to the men with whom he will soon face death. In addition to this difference in action, Kubrick has further contrasted these two scenes with both the soundtrack and his use of the camera. For instance, in the background of this second inspection is not the off-screen sound of martial music, but the actual sound of war, the deafening roar of the artillery barrage. And whereas the dominant movement of the general’s inspection is clearly from left to right, the dominant movement of this inspection is from right to left as it will be in the attack itself. Also, although the camera tracks this scene from in front of the approaching subject as in the general’s inspection, Kubrick has now used an eye-level camera angle and a near-normal lens. This combination of movement, lens, and closer and higher camera angle results, of course, in an intense sense of movement and space as in the previous inspection, but it does not convey a feeling of disorientation.
Lastly, another contrasting parallel within the inspections can be seen in the comparison of the basic rhythm of the two scenes. That is, at approximately the point in Colonel Dax’s inspection equivalent to the slapping incident in General Mireau’s inspection, the camera shifts momentarily to several shots of a subjective camera (from Dax’s point of view). The effect of this change is exactly the opposite of the change in the previous scene when the camera momentarily stops moving and cuts to the shot that follows the general’s retreat away from the camera after he has slapped the soldier.
Attack Against Anthill
Obviously the attack on the Anthill is the scene that is most clearly founded upon conflict and a long movement across a polarized space. The attack has, of course, already been “introduced” since it was preceded by the night reconnaissance that entered the space of no-man’s-land and which also contained the same basic structure — i.e., the night patrol also moved across this space toward opposition to a stop that is photographed from close up in front of the subjects. Yet while the attack has common structural features with the night patrol, it also differs in that it occurs in the day, a feature that seems to stress the irony and sense of disorientation in the fact that the real slaughter and hell occur not in the darkness men usually fear but in the light of day. Kubrick has prepared for the shock of the attack by keeping the camera down in the trench and by using a normal lens during Dax’s inspection. In this way he allows us, his audience, to hear the roar of the explosions but not yet to see that-fearful place that the frightened men will soon enter. Of course, this only increases the suspense and leads to the shock that comes when Kubrick cuts to an astounding overhead, panoramic view of the battlefield.3
This exciting attack was filmed with six cameras, one of which was hand-held by Kubrick as he followed actor Kirk Douglas across the field. As the space of this scene is conceptualized, this movement into no-man’s-land is from right to left, “against the grain.” Just as with the officers’ ball, but on a grander scale, Kubrick here blends two movements together, one the long movement of the attack itself and the other the zooming of his hand-held camera. At the time of the production of Paths, the zoom lens was new to the cinema and one of the few unwritten rules for its use was that one should not zoom while moving because this would result in a sense of disorientation in the audience. Young Kubrick, however, saw that in breaking the rule with this new lens (which he only uses twice in the film), he could both attain an important emotional effect and at the same time conceal his method under the extreme tension of the attack. Kubrick thus created a stunning scene, filled with death and the din of battle, that is ingeniously contained within the blending of the disorienting movement of zooming back and forth and the larger, horizontal movement through polarized space.
In addition to this aspect of the scene’s overall rhythm, the scene also contains the pervasive pattern of movement toward a climactic point that is attained and emphasized with a close-up of the main character (Dax) photographed from the front, a characteristic the attack shares with five other scenes. And lastly, the scene’s polarity is, of course, further enhanced by the cross cutting of the din and the slaughter in no-man’s-land with several shots of the calm and the safety of General Mireau’s observation post.
The court-martial that follows the attack is easily the most complex and imaginative scene of the work. Once again, an entire scene is based upon a conflict played out in a strongly conceived system of polarized space, here delineated by a symmetrical arrangement of characters. And yet however symmetrical and definite these patterns, so subtly are they conceived that the audience is not consciously aware of how Kubrick has manipulated their perception to his purpose. To begin, the action takes place in a large, brilliantly illuminated room of the chateau that seems far removed from the world of the trench and the attack, the place and event with which the trial is concerned. Moreover, Kubrick enhances the sense of space, emptiness, and cold impersonality by allowing the speeches in the room to echo faintly. The hard, symmetrical lines and the chessboard pattern of the immense floor reinforce the feeling that the chateau is the place of the system and the generals, a place where the system controls and lives are determined without compassion.
The symmetrical arrangement of the characters is closely associated with the symmetrical lines and the patterns of the room itself and with the conflict that involves images of movement through polarized space. For example, the room contains three tables. At the largest of these sit the officers of the Court-Martial Board, the president in the middle with two officers on each side (see Figure 2). In front and on either side of these officers are two smaller tables; i.e., to their left is the defense, Colonel Dax, and to their right is the prosecutor, Major Saint-Auban. Behind and to the right of Saint-Auban sits General Mireau on a divan, and along the wall on his side of the room sit the other officers of his command grouped together. The three prisoners sit in chairs across from the president, facing the action. Behind them stand three armed soldiers at parade rest. On the wall is a very large painting of a pastoral scene that ironically contrasts with the action below. (Kubrick used the same device of ironic juxtaposition of pastoral paintings and absurd cruelty in the scene when the officers bicker over how many men should be executed.)
Within the space of this symmetrically defined arena, Kubrick uses many technical devices to involve the audience subliminally in aesthetic patterns that are founded upon conflict. For instance, Kubrick photographed the actions of Saint-Auban from a position behind and level with the heads of the board members, and this viewpoint results in Saint-Auban’s actions being perceived between the heads of these officers who are in soft focus and partially framed. As Phillips has noted, this composition connects Saint-Auban to the officers, and it is obvious that he speaks only to them and is thinking more of his career than of justice.4 In opposition to this, Dax is photographed from behind the prisoners, resulting in the prisoners and parts of the bodies of their guards and their guards’ weapons being seen in soft focus as Dax speaks in front of the Board. This obviously connects Dax to the three men over whose fate he anguishes.
Within this scene Kubrick has also extended fundamental patterns and the sense of space and conflict by carefully “choreographing” the movement of the two main actors to correspond with their speeches. That is, Saint-Auban moves (screen right to left) from his side of the room against Dax. And when he is closest to Dax and states that the actions of the enlisted men are “a stain on the flag of France,” he seems almost to spit out the last phrase as if to challenge Dax. Dax’s speech is exactly the opposite. Whereas Saint-Auban spoke with his hat on, as dictated by military custom, Dax (a renowned civilian lawyer) attempts to relax and to be more natural by taking his hat off as he begins to speak. And whereas the major was photographed from behind the heads of the board members, Dax is photographed, of course, from behind the prisoners as he makes the long, horizontal movement in the opposite direction (screen left to right), across the large room toward and “against” General Mireau and his officers (see Figure 2). He makes two such “trips” back and forth across the space in front of the board and prisoners. And at one point near Saint-Auban, he seems almost to spit back the major’s phrase, saying that “the actions of these men were not a stain upon the flag of France. But this trial is.”
Further examination of this same sequence of shots gives the impression that Kubrick’s powerful style is endlessly complex, in that he communicates such an abundance of information on so many different levels. For he has not only used the setting, the placement of cameras and characters, the properties of different lenses, the composition of the frames, the movement and dialogue, but he goes even further to use the motion and the lack of motion of the camera. That is, Kubrick knew that not only does any movement of the camera involve the viewer in a strong sense of movement and space, but that different movements—e.g., panning, tracking, tilting — involve the viewer in different ways and in different degrees of intensity. He takes advantage of these differences in photographing the speeches of Saint-Auban and of Dax. Specifically, he pans the camera as he photographs Saint-Auban’s speeches and for the most part tracks (a more complex movement) Dax as he defends his men. In fact, the last speech of Dax is even more complicated; for Kubrick tracks Dax as he first walks to Saint-Auban’s desk, pans as he walks back to his own and then returns to Saint-Auban’s desk, and then ends this sequence by tracking Dax’s final movement back to his own desk. Kubrick has thus created a symmetrical pattern of opposition within such a pattern, and then concealed this structure within the narrative action which it reinforces—a superb cinematic example of the blending of form and content.
Following the trial, the relentless plot of Paths leads quickly and inexorably to the executions. But this scene is linked to the trial and to other scenes not simply by narrative, but also through its heavy irony and patterns of polarity and conflict. During much of the ceremony the chateau stands like a silent, ominous witness as it looms in the distant background. Looking down from its point of view at the three distant stakes, one would see the hard symmetrical lines of the formal garden and that the many characters are arranged into opposing sides (see Figure 3). On the left are the representatives of the state and the chateau world: i.e., a large number of officers, newspaper reporters and photographers, the two generals, and invited dignitaries. On the right stand the division band and Colonel Dax in front of his regiment, and closer to the stakes waits a wagon with three empty coffins. Starting from a point near the chateau, the three prisoners, accompanied by their guards and the priest, must walk down the corridor between the two opposing groups to the stakes where they will be bound and then shot. In short, the whole of the execution scene is oriented around the pervasive image of one long, harrowing movement through a polarized space toward a dreaded climactic point.
As in his later films, Kubrick has in the execution and other key scenes of Paths used the soundtrack — and especially music or the sounds of musical instruments— to create a high level of suspense and irony. In particular, he has used the drum in three scenes. In the Mireau inspection scene he uses an off-scene drum to play a martial theme in an ironic, downbeat manner which mocks Mireau and emphasizes his pretentiousness and hypocrisy. In the night reconnaissance the use of an off-screen drum again matches and reinforces the events and mood of the scene, in that it instills fear and suspense in the viewer. And in much the same way the driving rhythm of the rolling drums at the execution is used by Kubrick to intensify the feeling of fear and doom and the inevitability of these deaths in the garden of the chateau.
In addition to this use of the soundtrack, Kubrick has in the execution scene also increased the volume of certain almost extraneous sounds to make them figure importantly in the action and mood. Apparently he has done this in order to represent and to emphasize the psychological state of the condemned men whose perceptions are sharpened by their intense fear in these last moments of life. That is, while such sounds as reading the death warrant seem almost inaudible and insignificant, other sounds seem strangely and surprisingly magnified out of proportion. For example, after the reading of the death warrant Kubrick cuts to a shot in which the camera is situated at near ground level about twenty-five feet in front of the three prisoners who are now tied to the stakes. Suddenly, into the extreme foreground of the frame, enter the marching feet and legs, the arms and rifles of the firing squad. This particular viewpoint makes believable both the surprisingly loud sound of the marching feet that appear close to the camera and also the almost piercing sound made by the soldiers as they load their weapons. In addition to Kubrick’s use of sound, what is also impressive in this complex shot is both the shock on the faces of the prisoners and the non-human appearance of the firing squad. Filming from this low angle and with a short lens, Kubrick thus achieves a sharp contrast between the three helpless “little men” tied to the stakes and the large, frightening bodies and aimed weapons that in another moment will destroy them.
Kubrick’s sense of suspense, irony, and rhythm can also be demonstrated by another aspect of the sound in this scene. Up to the point of the blast from the rifles, the soundtrack has been very loud. Then suddenly, just before the loudest and most frightening of all sounds, there is unexpected silence. And buried within his stunning silence is the almost inaudible bird song and then rifle fire with which Kubrick ends the scene. Kubrick then dissolves to the sounds and image of the breakfasting generals who discuss the execution as they drink coffee and munch their croissants.
As in other scenes Kubrick has also increased the emotional impact of the execution through the use of different lenses and camera techniques that are by this point in the film a strong part of the fundamental structure of the work. He accomplishes this first of all by having the camera again track the subjects from in front as they move down the long corridor toward the stakes and coffins. As in Dax’s inspection, Kubrick switches momentarily to a subjective camera (from Corporal Paris’s point of view) for shots of Dax, the generals, photographers, and the three stakes. During the execution Kubrick also continues to contrast the generals with Colonel Dax by filming them with different lenses and from different angles. But in this particular scene he goes beyond this simple polarity that he has thus far constructed with these techniques; i.e., he forms out of the polarized structure of camera technique a climatic pattern that reinforces the events of the scene. He accomplishes this by moving steadily away from the normal lens and camera angle in two opposing directions at the same time, until he ends with the conflict of two extremely different images, each of which is associated with certain characters, events, themes, motifs, and patterns.
This whole system is formed primarily out of six shots, three of the generals and three of Dax, which are interspersed within the last minutes of the execution scene. This structure begins with the subjective camera shot (from the point of view of Corporal Paris) of the two generals, a near-normal lens, and an eye-level camera angle. The second shot of this pattern is that of Dax who is also photographed with the subjective camera, the same lens and camera angle; i.e., we see Dax as the prisoners do, standing in front of his men who are in focus. As the prisoners pass, Dax turns his head to follow them. The next shot of this structure begins the departure from the norm, for in it the two generals are shot with a stationary camera, a short lens, and a very low camera angle. Standing in their long, great coats, this combination of lens and angle makes them appear somewhat grotesque and communicates a slightly disorienting feeling to the audience. Next, as the prisoners are being tied to the stakes, we see Dax, who is now photographed with an ennobling, moderately telephoto lens which concentrates more on his individual face as it throws his partially visible men into soft focus. This shot ends as Dax glances over to the generals; and the camera then cuts to the last shot of the generals, who are photographed again through the unflattering short lens and from a ground-level angle. After a couple of shots of the activity at the stakes, we see Dax for the last time in this scene. And he is now photographed in an extreme close-up with a very long lens that separates him from the background that is completely out of focus and that concentrates on his anguish as he stands helplessly, watching his men die.
A careful study of Paths of Glory illustrates the extraordinary understanding and control of every aspect of filmmaking that Stanley Kubrick possessed as a twenty-seven-year-old director working on his first major film. In Paths he created an ingenious array of “aesthetic parameters” out of both the narrative and the technical properties of film. And from these parameters he created a complex yet subtle structure of polarity and conflict that reinforces the story while heightening both the emotional and the cognitive response of his audience.
He carried this structure and technique to the very end of his film. For whereas the film begins with a shot of the chateau and a nationalistic song, the “Marseillaise,” played off-key by a band, it ends in a dingy cafe with a simple German song about love and family, sung by a captive German girl for the saddened troops of Dax’s regiment. With a long lens selected for the kind of close-up photography that with few exceptions has been so carefully avoided, the camera moves slowly over the tearful faces, presenting us with over thirty close-ups. Surprisingly, the faces are either very young or old, an illustration of the pathetic state of the French army at this stage of the war. The implication is, of course, that in the other direction, in the Anthill and beyond, the enlisted men of the German army suffer the same existence. Outside the café stands the old sergeant who thoughtfully waits until the end of the song before giving the order for these disheartened men to return to the trench where they will again face their German enemy. And thus, whereas the climax of the narrative occurs in the last encounter between General Broulard and Dax, the resolution of the film as a whole is in this last scene — a strange and brilliantly conceived inversion process through which the conflicting patterns of the entire film close upon one another to form a final, “unresolved harmony.”
Published in Gary D. Rhodes (edited by), Stanley Kubrick: Essays on His Films and Legacy, McFarland & Co, pp. 71-81