Monday, February 21, 2011

Paths of Glory (1957) ****

Kirk Douglas has played some amazing roles. It seems to me that more than most actors, he has taken on roles of men who fought heroically against tyranny and lost. My favorite of these is the character Jack Burns, in “Lonely are the Brave,” based on Edward Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. Burns is the classic, American, rugged individualist. He is pitted against the faceless machine of progress and industrialization. Inevitably, he is beaten, but he never surrenders. In “Man Without a Star,” Douglas plays a cowboy fighting a losing fight against the fencing off of the American West. Then, of course, there is Spartacus, who attempts to lead a slave revolt against the Romans.

To this list of dissidents portrayed by Kirk Douglas can be added Colonel Dax. In Stanley Kubrick‘s “Paths of Glory,” Dax is a commander in the French army. An ambitious general orders him and his men on a hopeless attack on the Germans. When the assault inevitably fails, the embarrassed general puts some of the soldiers on trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Colonel Dax steps up to defend them and finds himself opposing an uncaring military machine that considers the lives of good men to be worth less than the pride of an incompetent general.

Kirk Douglas plays Dax with brilliant outrage, and the rest of the cast is excellent. I can find nothing, really, to criticize in this film. It’s a little hard, watching Douglas and several British actors speaking English, to remember that all the characters are supposed to be French, but in the end it really doesn’t matter what the nationality is. I suspect all armies are similar in how they deal with these situations.

War movies tend to be either gung-ho, like the movie “Gung-Ho,” or anti-war, like “Apocalypse Now.” As good as it is, “Paths of Glory” suffered at the box office, probably because it doesn’t have a definite place in the war-movie framework. The film doesn’t make any statements about war itself, rather it is a tale about the evil workings of large, machine-like organizations, an evil which can outstrip that of any individual person within the machine. Colonel Dax, like so many of Kirk Douglas’s other characters, represents the moral superiority of the individual over the machine. This is an excellent movie, with superior performances on all fronts. It does not really have any iconic scenes or stunning cinematography, and I cannot say that it belongs in the ranks of truly classic movies, but it is well worth watching.

4 stars

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