by Jesse Bier
Not the least of the virtues of Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Paths of Glory is that it has been a chief help in rescuing Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel— now appearing, as they say, on your neighborhood book-stand. One of the rare bonuses of work in fiction-and-film is to be sent back to the book. Kubrick’s great film still tends, in critical retrospect and perspective, to be superior in most respects. But brought back into its own, Cobb’s Paths of Glory appears as a thoroughly worthy World War I successor to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, the model that inspired but did not overwhelm Cobb.
There is, of course, no way to dismiss that influence of Crane. It presides at the very opening of the novel. The “younger” and “older” soldiers with whom the book begins, Duval and Langlois, recall “the youth” and “tall soldier” of Crane. Much like Crane’s Henry Fleming, Duval is a romanticizing recruit looking forward to a theatrical war experience.
“The Orchestration of the Western Front . . . and I’ve got a front-row seat. It’s glorious. Magnificent!”
He undergoes his baptism of fire in the name of a compulsive manhood that is an almost embarrassing echo of Crane.
The minute the flying metal had subsided . . . only then did it come to him that that spot on the road was the place where he had ceased to be a boy.
Cobb also practices the technique of ironic contrast found in Crane—like the sudden eruptions of peace and spring in the landscape amid war. And from Crane he learns the use of modifiers that gather ironic shock value in their unexpected contrastive domesticity: rats eating a corpse “daintily,” demolition satchel-carriers looking like “travelers waiting for a train,” a machine-gunned soldier sitting abruptly “as if he were attentively reading a book,” regimental sergeant-majors looking like “head waiters,” etc. In fact, a whole range of other meretricious stylistic effects also leads us back to Crane: excessive adverbial inflations (“The idea appealed to him immensely”), circumlocutions (“acoustic orientation” for hearing), and overexplicit arch commentary (“It never seemed to come into a man’s mind that, if he wanted to look into a thing, it might be better to do so before an attack”). But striking cosmic imagery is also traceable to Crane (the sun as a ballet dancer), as is the realistic dialogue, colloquially and rhythmically convincing the way it is in Crane, despite the censored expletives of army speech.
It is not surprising that some governing attitudes in Crane pass directly to Cobb, particularly an embittered pacifism, fed all the more by WWI butcheries and high-command callousness. There are straightforward notations on the futility of modern warfare.
Every day and every night men were being killed at the rate of about four a minute. The line remained the same, everything remained the same…
These instances modulate, as in Crane, to a blunt philosophic nihilism.
“All right, and who’d be the worse off for that? Plenty of races have died out and nobody seems to be mourning them. Ours will too, and I can bet the animals will be delighted when the day comes.”
Themes of determinism and powerlessness induce Cobb to frame his story with the two characters Langlois and Duval, who meet by chance as they companionably approach their front-line regiment and who find themselves senselessly on opposite sides of the firing squad at the end. This somewhat forced melodrama has its convincing counterpart in the lottery number that Langlois helplessly chooses to become his company’s execution sacrifice, in the midst of compounded and general confusion that duplicates the sheer haphazardry of battle casualties themselves and the unstoppable momentum of totally irrational events.
We may also detect the subsidiary Cranean theme of disinterested and perverse nature—placid and resurgent amid war, even to the detail of lovebirds on barbed wire after a barrage, an extra touch Crane might have devised himself. And we must include the antireligious sallies thoughout the story, culminating in Private Didier’s physical attack on the absolving priest.
But once Cobb focuses on his central plot—the vengeful arbitrary selection and duress of the three victims of trial and execution—the influence of Crane declines. The last third to half of the novel, engaged in a dramatic personalization of the parties involved, draws away from Cranean morale and the distancing techniques that necessarily went with it, and Cobb comes largely into his own.
In any case, Cobb’s relentless realism had measures of originality equal to any formative influence. If the motion picture chooses, as a price paid the star system (but amply repaid by Kirk Douglas’s performance), to highlight the character of Colonel Dax, Cobb refuses to do so in his own right. In the novel, for instance, although Dax knows of General Assolant’s order to the artillery to fire on his own troops, he does not brazenly follow it up—not so much a false lead on Cobb’s part as a deliberately loose end in the name of frazzled reality. Cobb wishes, as Kubrick certainly does not, to mute the dramatic possibilities in favor of lower-pitched realism. In the same spirit the author focuses climactically on the pitiful, abandoned state of the condemned men and not, as the auteur does, on their heroic though doomed defense.
Similarly, Cobb employs a deflationary technique throughout, debunking all combat exaltation. Infantrymen’s jaws seem lax or relaxed after combat not because of veteran nonchalance but because of the slack reaction following tightly clenched jaw muscles in battle; troops show the sullen silence of exhaustion; the literal nausea of fear affects regimental commanders; and experienced men vomit during patrol action and at the prospect of their execution. The paths of glory are distorted or squalid according to the prescription of an original and grisly realism: the “motionless clothing” of anonymous exploded men or fatally wounded Lieutenant Paolacci’s discovery of his own boot unaccountably near his face because his blown leg is doubled up to his head; the minute notation of flies feeding at open wounds, or the drawn-out grotesquerie of Langlois’ death at his execution post.
Cobb’s symbolism, while sometimes intrusive, is also very much his own. The target of French attack is nicknamed “the Pimple,” simply a hill fortress but also a local infection amid the wider contagion of modern warfare. The merciless president of the court martial is Colonel “La Bouchère,” and the sadistic and supreme fool is corps General “Assolant.” The most affecting victim is Private “Langlois,” a gallicism (from the French angois) suggesting anguish. So much for nomenclature. The connection between war and sex is perhaps a trifle too Freudian or modish, as in “erectile” cannons bringing death by castration, since the resulting dead bodies include dismembered testicles in particular. The image of the execution posts as crucifixion sites, however, provides more impact, especially considering Didier, the condemned man with the leg fracture, who is carried to his cross on a stretcher, already more dead than alive.
When it comes to grueling irony, Cobb discovers mordancy greater than anything in Crane. For example, Didier escapes the full sense of his execution because he has so much morphine in him, so that in his slumped stretcher position he is merely strangling to death; the rope holding him on, by the way, has been referred to as a support. Death by undeserved execution anyway—that is, from one’s own officers, not the enemy—is an irony that is doubled for us when we learn that this particular regiment had been heroic in previous action and ought to be given a citation for its bravery instead of cowardice. We may add, of course, the selection of Langlois as his company’s sacrifice after he has successfully survived a lottery subsequently invalidated by carelessly labeled numbers and is caught on an entirely new general ballot—an excruciating reversal of the fortunate “second” chance in life. There is a species of re-reversal, too, in the fact that for another company candidate, Meyer, the threat of Dreyfus-like anti-Semitism exempts him as Captain Soucy’s choice. Lieutenant Arnaud remarks,
“It’s tough on Férol, though, that Meyer’s a Jew and that you’re so farsighted.”
That kind of effect is in perfect accord with Cobb’s own brand of black comedy throughout.
”. . .Just going for a stroll.”
“Nature lover, eh?”
“You look it. Well, pick your daisies over here. It’ll be better for you than pushing them up there.”
Cobb can move from obvious wordplay to the grimmest punning, as when Langlois slips in his last letter to his wife: “Already I feel numb inside, as if my intestines were filled with lead.” These instances contribute to general gallows humor, of course, signaled most clearly by Private Férol:
“Keep your shirt on… You haven’t got much time to wear it anyway, and it’s going to need mending.”
Although Cobb’s narrative and descriptive style as such is not particularly distinguished, still it has its own felicities. Langlois vividly remembers his wife and, on his last leave especially, her sudden embraces, expressing in Cobb’s poignant exactitude a kind of “terrible tenderness.” During a barrage, rockets rise and burst above the ground action, in their beauty and merely functional lighting effect “aloof from the turmoil below.”
But probably Cobb’s most distinctive successes occur in his psychological vignettes. Cobb knew combat and could report authentically, for instance, those stark moments of absolute mental vacuity during high action.
. . .the machine gun was firing over them too,. . .on a naked plane. They held their breaths and their minds were emptied of all thought.
Notation on Dax’s nervous “uncompleted little yawn” just before zero-hour is the minutest psychological observation. Even in swift comic exchange Cobb shrewdly conveys the fawning mentality of an aide-de-camp.
“Nonsense. Who ever heard of a map co-ordinate in one figure?”
I say no, sir.
“Yes, sir. No, sir.” Herbillian floundered, trying to get back into verbal step.
Cobb is at his very best in rendering a process of double-think. Lieutenant Roget alcoholically overcomes his own resistance to selecting his enemy, Private Didier, as his company’s execution choice in a masterful sequence of reverse logic.
. . . he discovered that his rejection of Didier’s name had not been followed by its ejection too…
“It would not be fair to the other man, whoever he might be, to be penalized because I’m bending over backwards about Didier. The fact that I want to get rid of him mustn’t be permitted to give him the slightest advantage of immunity… The fly in this ointment is that my personal wishes coincide too closely with my duty… It would be the height of stupidity for me to do anything but assist events on the road they seem to be taking anyway…”
Roget took a third drink… He felt quite pleased with himself for having reached and taken his decision, a decision which now seemed logical, dutiful, inevitable. The alcohol had effectively anesthetized him from his scruples and had removed his irresolution.
Such a passage is paralled by the darkly exquisite moment when the condemned men try to convince themselves of the utter hopelessness of their situation as a perverse way, in fact, of rediscovering hope after the full plumbing of their despair: “responding to that curious instinct which impels men to talk themselves out of a situation by talking themselves into it.”
Authentic and potent as many such passages are in the novel, Cobb dilutes other effects that Kubrick strengthens in the film version. Most of these matters involve Colonel Dax. Probably, as I have suggested, Cobb was quite consciously serving a deflationary realism instead of drama. Or, perhaps, since his framework of Langlois and Duval is a somewhat melodramatic containment of the story, Cobb felt obliged to underplay most other effects within that framework. In any event, Colonel Dax is not all compact in the book. First of all, Cobb splits Dax’s role as regiment leader and legal defender, giving the civilian lawyer background to another officer in the regiment, Captain Étienne. Étienne defends the condemned men in a forthright manner but without illusions, Cobb avoiding eloquence in these sections, settling for a tone of controlled skepticism. This point of view and mood carry over to Dax’s limited efforts behind the scenes, as he argues about the increased political “connections” of a whole dozen condemned men, thus getting the number reduced to four. Later he fronts for Captain Renouart (who refuses to select a victim from his own company and rides off somewhere—an incident Kubrick simply cuts) by reminding some staff officer that a Senator Renouart is probably the captain’s relative, and the count of condemned is dropped to the final three. Dax is not allowed any other real participation in the defense, except to phone Division and Army generals later for an appeal or stay of execution. He fails, of course. But beyond his failure Cobb puns on the very distancing of Dax by having Private Langlois think of him subsequently as only a “remote” friend.
Apart from the weakened characterization of Dax, Cobb quite misgauges one or two other important effects. He arranges symbolically miserable weather for the actual day and hour of the attack; such poor visibility, for the opening barrage in particular, would have certainly meant tactical postponement. And then he makes the least instead of most of the attack itself—I mean, for narrative purposes—allowing few soldiers even to get out of the trenches under the combined bombardment, hardly any of them even making it as far as their own barbed wire. In this regard, too, probably Cobb’s feeling for deflational realism led him to underplay what could have been turbulent but certainly justifiable action.
Kubrick sacrifices one or two prime effects of his source and also takes some liberties with it. But his film adaptation is both more thematically centered and dramatically decisive than the book. The result is that we have a great movie where we had a neglected, very good novel. Perhaps the movie would be better known as the superlative production it is except that it was overshadowed in the year of its showing by the famous and more contemporary film of World War II, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Kubrick’s film was also low-budget and in black-and-white, suitably “dirty” for its themes but effectively removing it from box-office contention in 1957 and, so far, from its retrospective due.
The film’s opening—and presiding metaphor—is of the commanding generals at their headquarters chateau. The upshot of the scene is that Army General Brouillard cajoles and convinces Corps General Mireau (Assolant in the novel) to take the impregnable objective on his front, “the Ant Hill.” By changing name and symbol from local infection—”the Pimple” in Cobb’s novel—screenwriters Willingham, Thompson, and Kubrick himself emphasize automatism and conformism as a central theme instead. Right after the chateau interview, the Ant Hill is faded in through a tiny aperture in a trench—and then, in close-up, there at the front lines, it grows forbiddingly; after having been argumentative reckoned as a small thing by the generals, now it looms.
This method of immediate cinematic contrast will be one of Kubrick’s principal techniques in the film. Settings in and of themselves will furnish contrastive impact. The elegance and grandeur of chateaux will figure again in the court martial scenes, in General Brouillard’s dance and buffet soirée, and finally as a Versailles-type of execution ground. Alternated periodically with the trenches, the condemned men’s make-shift cell, and a humble bistro at the very end, the great quarters of the world will set imposing massive power over pitiful individual vulnerability throughout the film.
There is another altogether stunning effect in the opening that deserves comment. General Brouillard, played with consummate hauteur by Adolf Menjou, enters Mireau’s dinner salon—how often the grand officers are seen in delicate or sumptuous repast—and Brouillard disencumbers himself of his coat. Then the visiting general wearily takes off his hat. He does not quite give it to an orderly nearby, however. We see the orderly’s hand forced to reach over and take the hat, which is resting languidly on Brouillard’s tunic over his heart. Brouillard will not even extend himself to hand his hat to the enlisted man-servant, who is not worthy of the slightest physical, no less human, consideration. It is a passage of swift, almost throwaway, precision, this first moment of action in the film, uninsistent but declarative punctuation.
In such ways Kubrick’s sense of dramatic detail and grasp of structure informs the whole scenario. His close-ups are particularly functional. Usually they focus on the generals’ or on the soldiers’ faces, emphasizing close human duplicity or intimate helplessness. But the technique serves two highly effective tours of the forward trench also—one cavalierly undertaken by maniacal, grimacing Mireau, with some casualties surreptitiously passing by him in the background; and the other grimly undertaken just before zero-hour by Colonel Dax, his face taut with foreboding and concern, men already huddled in crumpled deathlike attitudes behind and below him on the trench floor during the opening barrage.
Kubrick actually spends a long enough dramatic interval on the attack itself; it exactly suits his structural and dramatic purposes, emphasizing the low and catastrophic condition of ordinary men. There has been sufficient critical attention paid to Kubrick’s meticulousness in the battle sequence of Paths of Glory, landscaping and props that he had personally and laboriously prepared for weeks. I wish to emphasize something else here. The quickly panned beheaded corpses and the exploded bodies are not merely sensational and symbolic features of No Man’s Land or even justifiable fixtures of candid realism. They are the necessary accentuation of the poilu’s horrific plight. Furthermore, the fact that Kubrick’s No Man’s Land is extraordinarily pockmarked even at the start of the action tells us that beyond question this is not the first—as it will not be the last—useless attack the men undergo as a consequence of egomania or political whim on the part of superior officers.
There are all sorts of niceties along with necessities in Kubrick’s film. The matter of hats, for instance, which we took note of during the introduction of General Brouillard. Kubrick picks the matter up again in the court-martial, where all officers keep their hats on—until finally, and more or less unconsciously, Dax removes his as he becomes climactically informal and humanized in his plea; nobody else in the court repeats or affirms his gesture, of course. Kubrick returns also to the theme of food and drink that he inserted in the film version. Toward the end of the first interview, General Mireau, egotistically forgetful of his superior, begins to take his cognac before General Brouillard does. Punctilios are observed, however, as the barrage for the attack begins; in a staff observation post Mireau’s adjutant is not forgetful and carefully passes a celebratory flask of cognac first to General Mireau, who accepts it with formal satisfaction. In the last of the officer interviews, Dax comes in upon Generals Brouillard and Mireau as they are finishing breakfast and is invited to join them in coffee; he refuses the coffee—and all suggestions, as it were, of any companionable meeting of the minds as well as of appetites.
Kubrick provides nice, or rather excruciating, subtleties in the overt violence as well. During the execution there is a massed ceremony for the proceedings—the entire regiment mustered in the formal chateau gardens, where the three condemned men are coming psychologically apart even as they are being ushered to their deaths. The biggest and supposedly manliest of the trio, Private Férol, falters and starts to blubber. The accompanying priest utters the cliche, “Brace yourself.” just as they approach the execution posts, focused on them by the camera. The ironic effect of external braces recalls Cobb’s subtle play on support, but in the movie the contrastive and personal impact of Kubrick’s device is more immediate and powerful.
I believe that it is such ironic conception that prompted Kubrick to cap the movie with his own ending at the cafe, by far the most controversial scene of the film. A sweet frightened captive German girl sings a German song about “mutter” to an initially catcalling audience of French soldiers, who soon turn quiet and even tearful as they remember their own womenfolk. The girl is yet another victim, singing to vulnerable enlisted men—never mind on which side—who will be off to the front again. Real enmity does not exist between the putative enemies, only between classes— officers and men—on each side. Against the internecine mercilessness we have been shown all along, Kubrick elects to show a long concluding scene of compassionate unity. He certainly risks sentimentality, but he achieves a final punctuating irony, counterpart to the opening interview of the two callous generals, so that the whole ironic method of the film culminates according to its own interior logic.
Kubrick’s grip on characterization equals his mastery of theme and structure. (One must credit his leading actors as well—Menjou as Brouillard, George McReady as Mireau, and Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, all directed into marvelously controlled performances). The portrait of Mireau is particularly apt. He is not only the pompous ass portrayed by Cobb but also a perfect mirror of the military psychopathology that accounted for and prolonged the war. In the film his Prussian-like facial scar effectively internationalizes him. He initially rejects the “Ant Hill’ mission but is won over by shrewd Brouillard, who delicately offers a bribe of promotion. Then Mireau forgets all talk about his “exhausted men” and switches to higher rhetorical flourishes about undertaking the attack for “France.” When subsequently touring the front line trenches, he stops to question some individual troops but never in any personal way, only with the abstract mechanical query, “Ready to kill Germans?” His military cant becomes accentuated: he himself is “a fighting general,” and “all France expects,” etc., etc. Wrought up in a kind of self-induced hysteria, he strikes a shell-shocked soldier who he automatically assumes is a malingerer. This act, of course, foreshadows the later artillery shelling he orders on his own men. But, aside from its structural place, it also dramatizes Mireau’s personal loss of contact with reality, his unseeingnes: the many stretcher cases and walking wounded around him ought to have convinced him, after all, of the impossibility of any attack at this juncture, but he imperiously misreads the evidence about him. When the attack fails, he is especially enraged at the artillery captain who refused to fire on his own trenches without a written instead of a telephone order, and Mireau orders his arrest. (The captain is later discreetly reprimanded for some short rounds and transferred —but not before he signs an incriminating affidavit for Dax.) Mireau also demands a court-martial for the whole regiment, calling for ten or twelve victims from each company. What saves him from caricature is the repression or control he manages between his revealing fits of insane command. . . .In any case, the French have met the enemy— and he is their general staff.
Mireau’s adjutant is a sycophantic replica of his chief. Standing with Mireau in Dax’s dugout, he counters Dax’s objections about the untimeliness of the attack by referring to the troops as inconsequential animals, all the while dandily removing his gloves. He does not yet know, of course, how soon Mireau and then Dax will make him lay hands to these very troops. For he is soon apppointed prosecutor of the court martial. At the trial he reflects Mireau’s attitude and language, addressing sarcastic questions to the accused and inevitably summing up about their “stain on France,” etc. These gestures and remarks are somewhat avenged by Dax, who is put in charge of executing the sentence and then orders the adjutant to read the execution proclamation directly to the men about to die. Now entirely too close to reality, the disinvolved and ambitious adjutant fumbles his way through in complete nervous discomposure.
Dax also selects as leader of the firing squad Lieutenant Didier, the alcoholic company commander who had chosen his personal enemy, Private Paris, as sacrifical victim for his company. Private Paris has survived the patrol in which Didier had deliberately grenaded his own scout. In novel and film, Didier’s patrol hysteria parallels Assolant/Mireau’s artillery order, but both the parallelism and Dax’s vengeance (the one because of the other?) come clearer in the movie.
Dax’s true equal in the story is General Brouillard, who matches him in force of character—one had almost said “brass”—and the uses of power. Indeed, all other antagonists to Dax act like so many straw men before Dax’s final confrontations with the commanding general. At the last, Brouillard is the dispassionate cynic, arguing coldbloodedly that execution is good for morale. If troops are not like animals, they are at least like children, who should be seen in action and never heard in protest. In any case, they need discipline and are better for it in the long run. Brouillard is even “grateful” to Dax for exposing Mireau’s stupid artillery order and offers Dax Mireau’s job as a reward for Dax’s intelligence and frank power play. Surprised but unruffled by Dax’s responsive slurs on the general’s unmitigated subjectivity and degeneracy, Brouillard after all regrets Dax’s basic sentimentality and pitiable idealism, the exact traits that will not win wars. This lofty sang-froid and aplomb are perfectly maintained in Menjou’s portrayal of Brouillard and almost succeed in vindicating the triumphant pragmatist—until we recall the historical moment. The year is 1916, and this is the Great War which commanding generals, just like Brouillard, were not winning, month after insane month and year after horrifying year. But this contextual deflation is all that Kubrick allows himself; for the instant, Brouillard remains the one who doesn’t pay. Is it this particular tough-headedness of Kubrick that permits retribution on the others in the script and frees him to proceed to the last affecting scene at the cafe, or does that final scene require the unrelenting characterization of Brouillard before it? No matter: the overall balance is exact, and the filmic conception and enlargement of Brouillard flawless. What is especially germane is Brouillard’s consistently intellectual stance—more than a simple amoral attitude, a sort of baseless but transcendent cerebral superiority that Kubrick allows Menjou’s general to assume.
But Colonel Dax himself is placed chiefly on the moral plane. In fact, the first we see of him, as Mireau and his adjutant visit his dugout, Dax is stripped to the waist at his morning’s ablutions: he is, first and foremost, a clean man. And he is certainly cast in an heroical role thereafter. He leads the regimental attack—in contrast to “fighting General” Mireau, who is ensconced in a rear area observation post. He even returns to the trenches of his stalled 3rd Company and vainly tries to rally the men there. (Only “dead men” in the trenches, Mireau cries later, would have testified to true difficulty; in part, ironically, that was the case). Later, with the legal background that Cobb had given Captain Étienne in the book, Kubrick’s Dax, not nearly a “remote” figure at last, voluntarily becomes defense counsel for the accused, earning Mireau’s anger for disloyalty to him personally. His actual defense is eloquent and fearless: like the novelistic Etienne, he protests the whole proceeding, especially the lack of stenographic record, as a “mockery of justice.”
But the possibility of exaggerated heroism and even stereotypical romantic glamor in the movie is undercut by two factors. For one main thing, Kubrick directs Kirk Douglas to act with uncharacteristic restraint, particularly at junctures, like the trial summation, when the situation is loaded enough in and of itself. We know that Kubrick needed a star like Douglas to sell his picture—or, more accurately, to buy it in the first place, to attract the necesssary production money. And for that reason alone, the role of lead actor had to be shifted from the more lowly and pathetical Private Langlois in the novel to a middle echelon figure like Colonel Dax. Kubrick’s coinciding artistic insight was then to fashion a hero and not a superhero, at least not a movie prototype. And so he carefully avoids Douglas’ stylization of himself and works for a character, for instance, of mature self-knowledge instead of grandstanding tendencies. Thus we see and hear Dax’s most moving courtroom performance from the other side of the court-martial guard detail, through their parade-rest but massed rifles. This visible force negates Dax’s power, which he probably knows, and Douglas’ restrained portrayal catches the hint of resignation under all the valor.
It is the roundedness, a sense of human complexity instead of mere contradiction, in the conception of Dax that is an especial triumph of the script, a great bonus that accrued from all the necessities of rewriting. For example, Kubrick’s Dax offers himself, like Cobb’s colonel, as the one logical man for punishment since he was in charge of the whole infantry regiment. The fact that his offer is also a reflection on General Mireau—toward whom Kubrick’s camera briefly turns—who was even more in charge of the whole attack, suggests a certain quality of cunning as well as self-sacrifice in Dax. And yet the man who led the charge virtually two times is a man who can genuinely risk death himself in a court-martial, should it come to that. Still, later on Dax will be quite capable also of a virtual blackmail attempt on General Brouillard, with the signed affidavit of the artillery captain about Mireau’s order to fire on his French soldiers. His blatant reference to the bad and even sensational publicity to come doesn’t work—because Brouillard is going to place it all on Mireau’s head—but it shows Pax in a devious mood. He remains clean enough, serving the good, but is not saintly. What he is capable of doing complicates and humanizes him. And such conception allows Kubrick then to set up the concluding cafe scene. That scene is observed by Dax— revealed by the camera pulling away at the very last—deep in baffled compassion for his men who have the same war and higher powers to fight all over again.
The men themselves are never individualized to the extent of the officers. They are simply victims, and the full personal impact of their story is largely reserved for the overwhelming death of three of them at the end. These particular three are given foreshortened backgrounds—and abbreviated fore-grounds as well. In fact, Kubrick’s main reduction of Cobb is to give up one of the best things of all in the novel, the painful turn of events in the lottery proceedings of Private Langlois’ company so that Langlois is chosen the second time after having escaped the first faulted round. For Kubrick’s purposes, questions of who the men are and exactly how they got where they are don’t signify very much, the way their separate and regimental records for distinction are deemed irrelevant in court. They are representatives of common man, relatively powerless and on occasion doomed.
Although the three special victims represent the great class of the unwashed, they are not altogether anonymous types. Private Férol is still Cobb’s “social undersirable”—there is no mention of his selection due to reverse anti-Semitism, as in the novel—made by Kubrick into a big, clumsy braggart who is the first to break down at the verdict.Cobb’s Private Didier—called Private Paris in the movie, as a kind of further French accentuation for English-speaking audiences—is one of those men who were literally unconscious in the Third Company forward trench, a fact that means nothing to the court. And Langlois’ counterpart in the film is the one who finally attacks the sactimonious priest-confessor and is in turn accidentally knocked down and skull-fractured—not by the guards, in Kubrick’s extra ironic view—but by Private Paris. At the execution the comatose man has his cheeks pinched to bring him briefly to. Private Paris himself temporarily collapses but then, face to face with his tormentor and selector, his acting company commander, he pulls himself together and even refuses the blindfold. Then the three are summarily executed, as a little group. Afterward, we have the concluding officer interview at the chateau, followed by the cafe sequence and the colonel’s long brooding view of all his fated men.
Kubrick evidently felt that he had overeconomized after all, slighting the enlisted men too much in his movie version. That is why he presents, midway, the only structural excrescence of the film—a dugout interlude of soldiers’ whispered talk about their fear of pain being greater than their fear of death. This point is not intrinsic to anything else in the movie and appears to have been retained by Kubrick in final cutting only as a felt compensation for his greater attention to the officers.
I have emphasized questions of theme and construction in the film. But I do not wish to ignore technical excellences and subtleties, although the bulk of criticism up to now has indeed been technical, dealing with pacing and rhythm (and the expert “framing” of scenes, in particular), etc.Kubrick is especially good at placement or composition: like the obvious but still effective high-angled shot of Colonel Dax turning on a stairway to answer Mireau’s scathing rebuke but standing higher than the general, or the less obvious placement of the three condemned men together in their dungeon-cell beneath the dwarfing arches of the chateau cellar, composed and already diminished for us in their agony. It is not an undue subtlety, either, on the part of a man of such calculation to have his cameras take in so many checkered parquet floors of chateaux, suggesting chessboards for the element of a power game, to underline his governing view. And there was no little technical audacity in Kubrick’s use of drums instead of full, overriding music during the battle scene as well as execution; no swelling, coloratura music occurs anywhere in the movie. All in all, taking the part of a writer, photographer, prop man, and editor as well as director, Kubrick fulfilled the function of absolute, innovative auteur in this film if anyone every did in the production of a motion picture.
But my own critical attempt has been to show a man in pursuit of utmost thematic and structural control in the film. To this end Kubrick relied principally on ironic effect, especially on a relentless succession of contrasts in scene and characterization, guided by the governing motifs of class and power in the movie. Although both Cobb and Kubrick agree on the most generalizable of tragic themes, the unstoppable momentum of events, Kubrick does not quite accept Cobb’s emphasis on sheer accident or blind irrationalism. Rather, Kubrick stresses the crazed and cynical attempts of power figures to rationalize the irrational either through hysteric transformation or a kind of wanton discipline. It seems to me that Kubrick foregoes Cobb’s—and before him, Crane’s— belief in a larger, eternal Fate and chooses to trace the workings of stark mortal power instead. This is another reason for the moviemaker to have shifted the presiding military figure from the scrofulous symbolization of disease, the Pimple, to one of primary class-stratification as well as social automatism in the Ant Hill.
In any case, the result was and is the nearest thing to perfection in an adaptation of novel to film. And the most stunning effect of all is not merely to have raised auteurabove author—which is true enough—but for auteur to have simultaneously and perhaps permanently rescued the author. To the best of my knowledge of fiction-and-film, that has not happened before—or since.
VQR – A National Journal of Literature & Discussion, Summer 1985 Volume 61 # 3