Paths of Glory (1957)

by Stanley Kubrick

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Paths of Glory (1957)

Docudrama by Tim Dirks,

Paths of Glory (1957) is a masterful, unsentimental, classic anti-war film about World War I. It was 28 year-old Stanley Kubrick's fourth feature-length film (Kubrick served as its director and co-writer with Calder Willingham (screenwriter for Little Big Man (1970)) and blacklisted crime novelist Jim Thompson), but it was his first major success, following after his first amateurish feature Fear and Desire (1953) (subsequently removed from circulation and screenings by Kubrick himself), Killer's Kiss (1955), and MGM's low budget The Killing (1956). [Kubrick's work with actor Kirk Douglas in this film led to his choice as a replacement director for Anthony Mann for Spartacus (1960), following a falling out between Douglas and Mann.] Kubrick's film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

Juxtaposed in interesting fashion, this low-budget, independent production with a distinctly European flavor premiered one week after the release of David Lean's Best Picture-winning, CinemaScopic war epic blockbuster, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) from Columbia Pictures. This stark, slightly stagey, 87-minute black and white film, shot on location in Germany with crisp B/W photography (by George Krause) with a budget less than $1 million, is as compelling and harsh an indictment and criticism of war as Lewis Milestone's award-winning, anti-war classic All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), adapted from Erich Maria Remarque's novel.

The title of the film, actually ironic and inappropriate since war is not a 'path of glory', was suggested by line 36 in 18th century English romantic poet Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Although the film is considered one of Kubrick's best, it was denied even a single Academy Award nomination.

The suicidal attack on an impregnable fortress named 'Ant Hill' in the film (against an unseen German enemy) was inspired by and loosely based upon the six-month bloodbath in 1916 during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont, a French stronghold eventually captured by the Germans. (The same battle was frequently referred to in Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937)).The protracted conflict claimed the lives of 315,000 French soldiers (called poilus) on the Western front. Due to the film's raw, controversially-offensive and critical assessment of hypocritical French military and bureaucratic authorities who callously condemn and sacrifice three randomly-chosen innocent men with execution (for cowardice) for their own fatal blunder, it suffered poor box-office returns, and was banned in France and Switzerland for almost twenty years (until the mid-1970s) following its release.

One of the film's posters exclaimed: "IT EXPLODES IN THE NO-MAN'S LAND NO PICTURE EVER DARED CROSS BEFORE!" It also describes the film as a "bombshell story of a Colonel who led his regiment into hell and back - while their maddened General waited for them - with a firing squad." Major star Kirk Douglas [Richard Burton and James Mason were also considered for the role], with his own production company (Bryna), insisted on pushing ahead with financing for the unpopular film project (this was Bryna's second film following after The Indian Fighter (1955)) and played the lead role as lawyer-trained Colonel Dax compelled to defend three of his court-martialed men against hopeless odds. [Bryna was one of Hollywood's first independent film companies - named after his mother and managed by his wife Anne. It produced many memorable films, including The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964).]

Based upon the controversial, published, semi-fictional 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, this anti-war film emphasizes the wide, hierarchical gap between those who take orders and fight the wars in muddy trenches, and those that give the orders and are isolated from the real ravages of war. Three blameless, subordinate soldiers are victimized, given hopeless 'paths of glory,' and condemned to die to cover up the wrong-headed actions of their ruthless and opportunistic superiors.

This was the first of Kubrick's anti-war trilogy:

* a black comedy and anti-war film, Dr. Strangelove Or:... (1964) carries through much of the same sentiment against the military establishment

* the compelling Full Metal Jacket (1987) also portrays the dehumanizing effects of war by following a group of Marines in basic training and in Vietnam

Kubrick also commented upon the subject of war and conflict in two other films: his epic costume drama Barry Lyndon (1975) (the Seven Years' War), and in the historical epic film Spartacus (1960) (the slave uprising).

The film, a treatise on human injustice, opens with briskly-played martial music - "La Marseillaise" - from a brass band and a snare drum - while the credits (white text-on-a-black background) are shown. The anthem ends on a discordant note, emphasizing how patriotic fervor among the dutiful citizenry can be generated by the Establishment for its own strategic purposes. The time period of the setting is identified as "France 1916," during a wide angle shot (that slowly pans from right to left) of a large courtyard, where a unit of armed soldiers marches in formation up to a baroque building. There have been two years of stalemated fighting, according to a narrator, who sets the warfront scene on the Western Front:

War began between Germany and France on August 3, 1914. Five weeks later, the German army had smashed its way to within 18 miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River, and in a series of unexpected counterattacks, drove the Germans back. The Front was stabilized and shortly afterward developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. By 1916, after two grisly years of trench warfare, the battle lines had changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards - and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands.

A grand, stately, palatial chateau [Schleissheim Castle], seen from its exterior, has been commandered by the French as their attack command center and field headquarters - French army officers live there in elegant luxury. Two of the film's main characters are introduced. Corps Commander General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), a wily, cultivated but calloused, evil, scheming and ruthless officer in the French High Command arrives in an open car, to discuss top-secret military maneuvers with his vainglorious subordinate - the scar-faced divisional General Paul Mireau (George Macready, with a real facial scar - the result of a serious car accident).

Inside the placid chateau, with beautifully decorated and furnished walls of marble, carpets, Louis XIV chairs, and paintings, a suave and neatly-uniformed (with medals and buttons) Broulard hands off his hat to his aide without looking. In one of Kubrick's best-orchestrated scenes, Broulard describes his top secret offensive plan: "I've come to see you about something big." He proposes the taking of a German fortified enemy stronghold in the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours, an impregnable position and "key position" called the 'Ant Hill.' A suicidal charge would be the only possible option, so Mireau expresses grave doubt and skepticism about the plan, and about the condition of his battle-weary troops:

It's out of the question, George. Absolutely out of the question. My division was cut to pieces. What's left of it is in no position to even hold the Ant Hill, let alone take it. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.

Manipulatively with subtle and persuasive urgings as they weave around each other in the large room, Broulard intimates that the vain-glorious, ambitious Mireau might be considered, as a "fighting general," for a rapid promotion to the Twelfth Corps (with another star) if the Ant Hill is taken. Mireau first expresses his concern and attitude toward his troops - with some lack of conviction.

Mireau: I am responsible for the lives of 8,000 men. What is my ambition against that? What is my reputation in comparison to that? My men come first of all, George. And those men know it, too.

Broulard: I know that they do.

Mireau: You see, George, those men know that I would never let them down.

Broulard: (unimpressed, with a glib reply) That goes without saying.

Mireau: The life of one of those soldiers means more to me than all the stars and decorations and honors in France.

But he quickly changes his attitude to one of determination and pride - and his own potential for personal glory. His voice echoes off the high-ceilinged room as he talks himself into the task - one that will surely decimate his troops with heavy casualties:

Nothing is beyond those men once their fighting spirit is aroused...We might just do it!

Agreeing on the plan, an immaculately-uniformed Mireau visits the front's war zone, in a dramatic change of scene. He views the formation called the Ant Hill through a narrow slit. He is clearly out of place and ill-at-ease as he marches through the muddy, narrow trenches to inform 701st Infantry Regimental Commander Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the planned attack. Emotionally and physically isolated from the men he leads, Mireau plans to pass the responsibility of the attack on to his field commander. The endless tracking shots of Mireau through the trenches are absorbing and dramatic, along with distant sounds of exploding mortars. With his subservient aide Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), he briefly stops along the way to disdainfully and speak to the men, asking in machine-like fashion the same question, without waiting for responses:

Hello there soldier, ready to kill more Germans?

[Without having seen the entire film, viewers would not realize that the three soldiers to whom he speaks are those whose lives he will later seek to sacrifice to save his own reputation.]

(1) Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is asked: "Are you married, Private?" The Private responds: "No, sir." Mireau continues: "... Well, I'll bet your mother's proud of you!"

(2) Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is asked: "Looking over your rifle, I see? Well, that's the way. It's a soldier's best friend. You be good to it and it will always be good to you."

(3) Private Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), a third soldier, is also encountered.

Another older soldier is asked if he is married. When told the soldier is suffering from shell shock, Mireau responds: "There is no such thing as shell shock!" The soldier replies: "Yes, I have a wife...I'm never going to see her again. I'm going to be killed." Mireau suddenly lashes out at the cowardly man and slaps him, considering him undesirable and mentally incompetent. When the man doesn't snap out of his shell-shocked state and is reduced to tears instead, Mireau orders:

Sergeant, I want you to arrange for the immediate transfer of this baby out of my regiment. I won't have any of our brave men contaminated by him.

When they reach Dax's dark, shabby, and low-ceilinged trench headquarters [a significant contrast to the 'war room' atmosphere of the chateau], Dax is washing. Dax greets Mireau courteously, but he refuses a chair. Mireau moves continually throughout the scene (putting himself in and out of focus), while the stoic Dax remains stationary:

Mireau: I never got the habit of sitting. I like to be on my feet. Keep on the move...I can't understand these arm-chair officers, fellas trying to fight a war from behind a desk, waving papers at the enemy, worrying about whether a mouse is gonna run up their pants leg.

Dax (sarcastically but sensibly): I don't know, General. If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I think I'd take the mice every time.

When they study the Ant Hill with binoculars amidst explosions and the whine of shells, Mireau expresses his plan in a veiled way: "It's not something we can grab and run away with, but it certainly is pregnable." Using the same manipulative methods that were used by Broulard on him, to convince him to cooperate, Mireau compliments Dax on his success as a criminal lawyer in his former civilian life. And then he jitteringly reveals the plan for the next day - Dax's regiment is to take the Ant Hill. Mireau is unruffled and casually calculates that over half of the men will be casualties in the assault on the hill, but they can still hold the position with the survivors.

Naturally, men are gonna have to be killed, possibly a lot of them. They'll absorb bullets and shrapnel, and by doing so make it possible for others to get through...say five percent killed by our own barrage - that's a very generous allowance. Ten percent more again in no man's land, and twenty percent more again into the wire. That leaves sixty-five percent, and the worst part of the job over. Let's say another twenty-five percent in actually taking the Ant Hill - we're still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.

Panicked and somewhat short of breath, Mireau also appeals to Dax's patriotism and the name of France, but Dax is stunned, knowing that the scheme is impossible and suicidal. He quotes Samuel Johnson's words: " the last refuge of a scoundrel." Mireau threatens that Dax will be relieved of his command if he doesn't agree to the attack. Although he is tired, Dax concedes to the plan to stay close to his men and to follow military orders: "If any soldiers in the world can take it, we'll take the Ant Hill." Although he is an officer, Dax must still personally lead his men, suffering along with them. Mireau promises a reward to placate him: "And when you do, your men will be relieved and get a long rest."

[In an integrated subplot that now interrupts the major storyline, the film viewer witnesses for the third time since the movie's beginning how a superior officer takes advantage of his military position to dominate a subordinate officer further down the chain of command into submission - it is an indictment of the whole stratified military caste system, in which officers strive to pursue 'paths of glory' by advancing themselves, by any means, along the chain of command.]

Three officers, cowardly Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), Corporal Paris and Private Lejeune (Ken Dibbs) are ordered by Dax (and wished good luck) to go on a reconnaissance patrol into the darkness of no-man's-land before the assault. The lieutenant has "fortified" himself with drink to bolster his courage. Flares are to be sent up at five-minute intervals to guide them. Crawling in the dark through the scarred land full of shell holes, twisted barbed wire, watery pits and rubble, the Lieutenant sends the private out ahead as an advance scout, although Paris thinks it is unwise to split a night patrol. Terrified, Roget panics after an unexpected delay, thinking they should return to their own lines and forget about Lejeune. Two flares light up the ghastly no-man's land scene. When Roget sees a figure move, he thoughtlessly hurls a hand grenade into the darkness and then runs back to the French lines. When he investigates, Corporal Paris finds Lejeune's ripped-open body.

In his bunker, Roget writes a report on the night's mission. An eyewitness to the murder, Corporal Paris enters from the field:

Roget: I thought you'd been killed.

Paris: You didn't wait around to find out, did you Lieutenant?

Roget: Now look here, what do you mean?

Paris: I mean you ran like a rabbit after you killed Lejeune.

Roget: Killed Lejeune? What are you talking about? (He rises) I don't think I like your tone. You're speaking to an officer, remember that.

Paris: Oh, well, I must be mistaken then, sir. An officer wouldn't do that. A man wouldn't do it. Only a thing would - a sneaky, booze-guzzling, yellow-bellied rat with a bottle for a brain and a streak of spit where his spine ought to be. You've got yourself into a mess, Lieutenant.

Roget cynically expresses his superiority and counter-reprimands him for insubordination, threatening a superior officer, and refusing to obey an order and inciting others to do the same. Paris threatens to bring charges and accuses his superior officer of drunkenness on duty, wanton murder of one of his own men, and cowardice in the face of the enemy. Roget bluntly asks:

Have you ever tried to bring charges against an officer? It's my word against yours, you know, and whose word do you think they're gonna believe - or, let me put it another way, whose word do you think they're going to accept?

In his report, Roget hides his responsibility for Lejeune's death by writing that the private was killed by machine gun fire when he coughed.

Preparing for the assault on Ant Hill, just before dawn, Dax speaks to his officers in his bunker. Artillery will start at "zero five-fifteen," and the last wave out should be no later than "zero five-forty." There will only be minimal artillery support so as not to alert the enemy to a full-scale advance. Dax wishes all of his officers good luck and expresses his confidence in them. Two privates in their quarters talk about their chances of survival and fears, more afraid of getting hurt by high explosives or bayonets than dying. General Mireau waits in his command post, offering a toast of cognac "To France" before the assault.

At dawn, Dax strides solemnly through the center of the trenches with bombs blasting on every side, inspecting and reassuring his men as they make room for him to pass through the narrow corridor - the lengthy one-take shot is about 65 seconds long. They are ready with fixed bayonets to go over the top for the assault. Memorably filmed like a documentary (without a sweeping musical score), the lengthy and fluid tracking shots follow him from behind, then from in front, as the bombardment increases - the air is full of mortar explosions, the sound of machine guns and rifle fire, and the whine of bombs. The build-up of tension is terrific. Parts of the reinforced walls of the trench slide and crumble, and the end of the trench is concealed by a shroud of dust and smoke. Dax climbs a ladder, crouches, ready with a pistol in one hand. After a countdown on his watch, he blows a whistle to signal his men to charge over the top of the trenches toward the Ant Hill.

In a stunning, choreographed, ten-minute sequence photographed from medium and long-shot views with incredible tracking shots from the side, the troops sweep out across the pockmarked lunar-like landscape, littered with muddy gullies, bomb craters, bodies, debris, shell holes and barbed wire, as the barrage continues to roar. They follow Dax, pitifully blowing the whistle and waving a pistol in his hand, leading his men toward the enemy position. As the men run, stoop, stumble, and crawl during the attack, stumbling over the corpses of comrades, reactions to the disastrous attack are recorded on their faces. Men fall as German machine guns cut them down on all sides. Thousands of them are slaughtered in no man's land before they even reach the halfway point or beyond their own defenses. Dax continues to run on during the intense attack across the smoky landscape. The French wounded and dead pile up, and the air is filled with the wails and moans of defeated, agonized, injured voices. The German fortress is impregnable as expected.

Mireau, who is a spectator [of the brutal sport of war] with binoculars in the command post a safe distance away, is impatient and hysterical. He asks about the next attack wave, seeing that a whole company has not even left the trenches:

Miserable cowards, they're not advancing...they're still in the trenches!

Enraged and humiliated, Mireau calls for Captain Nichols to notify Captain Rousseau (John Stein), the battery commander, and order him to open fire on his own troops who are still in the trenches: "The troops are mutinying, refusing to advance!" Rousseau respectfully refuses the request twice. Knowing that he must have written proof of the insane command - to 'cover his own ass,' Captain Rousseau requires the order in writing: "Supposing you're killed. Then where will I be?" Mireau screams back, threatening him with a court martial:

You'll be in front of a firing squad tomorrow morning, that's where you'll be. Hand over your command and report yourself under arrest to my headquarters.

The battery commander still refuses, and eventually calm prevails.

Men are retreating back into the trenches, and many more men are still in the trenches. Dax has returned and he attempts to get the rest of the men into the field attack, pushing and yelling at them. He finds that Lieutenant Roget hasn't ordered his men to leave the trenches. Attempting to encourage his men to courageously follow him, Dax climbs up the trench ladder, only to be thrown back in by a French soldier's body that rolls toward him - a memorable moment. The cowardly Roget sums up: "It's impossible, sir. All the men are falling back."

The attack is a failure - and a disaster, with the men justifiably resorting to self-protection. But scar-faced Mireau is infuriated at their cowardice and unable to admit that the attack was ill-conceived. To consequently cover up his own disastrous complicity, he announces that he plans to assemble a general court-martial for three o'clock the next day to selectively punish the regiment for its cowardice:

If those little sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll face French ones!

To vengefully trump up charges and hide the vanity, ambition, and incompetence of the officers in their tactical disaster, Dax is summoned to the chateau to make a final determination regarding the courtmartial with Mireau and Broulard. Dax is first commanded to order his regimental officers to pick ten men from each company (a total of one hundred men) to stand trial in the general court-martial, and "tried under penalty of death for cowardice." The overbearing Mireau is still frustrated that half of the men never left the trenches, vengefully believing they have skimmed milk in their veins instead of blood:

Dax: They're not cowards, so if some of them didn't leave the trenches, it must have been because it was impossible.

Mireau: They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that order. We can't leave it up to the men to decide when an order is possible or not. If it was impossible, the only proof of that would be their dead bodies lying in the bottom of the trenches. They are scum, Colonel, the whole rotten regiment; a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.

Dax: Do you really believe that, sir?

Mireau: Yes, I do. That's exactly what I believe. And what's more, it's an incontestable fact.

A man with a moral conscience, Dax is stunned and sickened by the accusations, knowing that his men were pinned down under intense fire, and performing as heroically as possible. His trenches are soaked in blood, but he must listen to the crass bargaining going on for the lives of his men who are considered cowards:

Then why not shoot the entire regiment? I'm perfectly serious...If it's an example you want, then take me...One man will do as well as a hundred. The logical choice is the officer most responsible for the attack.

Broulard doesn't wish to consider this as a "question of officers." They haggle over the number to be selected to be brought to trial. Instead of selecting a hundred men, a dozen men, or ten men from each company, the number is whittled down to a token number. Three men, one in each company's first wave, are to be selected by each company commander. Craftily, Broulard opts out of attending the court-martial that afternoon, further distancing himself from the inevitable inhumane treatment of three accused scapegoats: "Oh, I won't be there, Paul...I think it best that you handle this matter on your own." Dax, previously complimented as a defense lawyer, is chosen to act as defense counsel.

Outside in the hallway with Broulard, Mireau stops one of his own officers, Captain Rousseau, his own battery commander (who disobeyed his orders) because some of his artillery shells supposedly fell short. Overhearing the accusation, Broulard feels the charge is "bad stuff. Demoralizes the men." But Mireau, jittery and anxious to hide the incident, explains why he is avoiding a court inquiry with the Captain and transferring him elsewhere:

In cases like this, shells falling short, I-I always try to avoid an inquiry. It gets around among the men and makes a bad impression. Now, shelving will be the best discipline for him in my opinion.

A few moments later, Mireau also confronts Dax and continues to press the matter. Mireau threatens to break and ruin him after the affair is over because of his lack of respect and loyalty:

Get off this fancy talk with me, do you understand? Colonel Broulard seemed to think you were funny. I don't. I want you to drop this affair...Colonel Dax, when this mess is cleaned up, I'll break you...I'll ruin you. And it'll be just what you deserve, showing such little loyalty to your commanding officer.

Dax meets with his three regimental commanders (one of whom is Lieutenant Roget) and tells each of them to choose a man from their company. Each individual will then be placed under arrest, and appear before a general courtmartial by three o'clock in the afternoon. "The charge is cowardice in the face of the enemy."

Before the trial, Dax visits all three selected men in their prison cell - Corporal Paris, Private Arnaud, and Private Ferol. All of them express how they resent what has happened to them and how they were chosen. Corporal Paris was chosen by the blackmailing Lieutenant Roget following the murder of Lejeune on patrol, because Paris knew that Roget was both a murderer and a coward. Arnaud was chosen by a random drawing of lots - and picked "purely by chance". Ferol was selected because his captain believed he was a "social undesirable." Dax explains to them that the reason for their selection is "immaterial. Whatever the reason, you're on trial for your lives." In Paris' case, he cautions: "You've got no witnesses. Besides, such charges against an officer would only antagonize the court." They must continue to act like brave soldiers:

Stick to the stories you've told me, and don't let the prosecutor shake you out of them. Now remember, you'll be soldiers in the presence of superior officers, so act like what you are - soldiers! - and brave ones at that...When you answer questions, look the judges in the eye, don't whine, plead, or make speeches. That's my job. Simple statements, short, but make them so they can be heard all over the room and try not to repeat yourselves. I'll do that for you when I sum up.

In taut and compelling scenes, the trial is held in the clean, gleaming, high-ceilinged ballroom of the chateau, with a checkerboard pattern on the marble floor - the trial is a strategic chess-match, of sorts. Footsteps and voices echo through the great hall, with its forty-foot high ceiling. It is a 'kangaroo court' farce from the very beginning, without the slightest pretense of fairness. The president of the court-martial, Colonel Judge (Peter Capell) does not read or record the official lengthy indictment of cowardice: "This is a general courtmartial and we shall therefore dispense with unnecessary formalities. These men are charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy and will be tried for that offense." When pressed by Dax, he argues that "the indictment is lengthy and there's no point in reading it," and then only summarizes the charges: "The indictment is that the accused showed cowardice in the face of the enemy during the attack on the Ant Hill."

The testimony portion of the trial is a hurried, one-sided, rigged farce led by prosecutor, Major Saint-Auban.

(1) the first defendant, whining Private Ferol, is quickly brow-beaten and made to admit that he retreated after advancing only part of the way across no man's land.

Saint-Auban: Did you advance?...How far did you advance?

Ferol: To about the middle of no man's land, sir.

Saint-Auban: Then what did you do?

Ferol: ...Well, I saw that me and Meyer, sir...

Saint-Auban: I didn't ask you what you saw. The court has no concern with your visual experiences...

Ferol: I went back, sir.

Saint-Auban: In other words, Private Ferol, you retreated.

Ferol: Yes, sir.

(2) the second defendant, Arnaud, quietly and intelligently explains his advance to his own side's wire as far as he could go "...'til I was ordered back to the trenches by Captain Renoir." After being asked, "Did you urge your fellow soldiers forward?", he further relates: "Most of them were dead or wounded before they got three steps beyond the trenches." Nevertheless, he is labeled a coward for not urging them on, even though none of the men in the company got beyond their side's wire. Dax emphasizes that he was "designated a coward simply and purely because you drew a slip of paper marked X." Although Arnaud had distinguished himself in the past in "some of the bloodiest battles of the war," his testimony is overruled when it is argued that it is accepted practice to choose one enlisted man by lot as an example, no matter how many citations of bravery a man has: "It's accepted practice in the French Army to pick examples by lot." Arnaud is on trial, it is argued, for his current cowardice, not for his former bravery: "Medals are no defense." It also cannot be proven that he reached the German lines, even though "no one in the entire regiment got anywhere near the German wire."

(3) the third defendant, Corporal Paris, argues that he was knocked unconscious as he left the trench, with a large cut on his head to prove it, but his defense is also dismissed.

Dax: Why didn't you leave the trenches?

Paris: Major Vignon was shot, and he fell back on top of me, sir, and knocked me cold.

Dax: And were you lying unconscious in the trenches during the entire attack?

Paris: Yes, sir.

Judge: Have you any witnesses to that?

Paris: No, sir. I guess everybody was too busy to notice me. There were so many others lying dead anyway.

Judge: But you have no witnesses?

Paris: No, sir. I only have a rather large cut on my head, sir.

Judge: That could have been self-inflicted later.

In a memorable sequence, during final arguments, the prosecutor delivers his summation speech to the judges, pacing back and forth, polished boots clicking on the floor:

And I submit that attack was a stain on the flag of France, a blot on the honor of every man, woman, and child in the French nation. It is to us that the sad, distressing, repellent duty falls, gentlemen. I ask this court to find the accused guilty...

Dax provides an eloquent rebuttal, pacing back and forth between the three prisoners and the three judges, while showing genuine concern for the accused:

There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion...I protest against being prevented from introducing evidence that I consider vital to the defense, the prosecution presented no witnesses, there has never been a written indictment of charges made against the defendants, and lastly, I protest against the fact that no stenographic record of this trial has been kept. The attack yesterday morning was no stain on the honor of France, but this court-martial is such a stain...Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty will be a crime to haunt each of you to the day you die. I can't believe that the noblest impulse in man, his compassion for another, can be completely dead here. Therefore, I humbly beg you to show mercy to these men.

The head of the court announces that the hearing is closed, and deliberations are to occur ("the court will now retire to deliberate"), although it is already obvious what the inevitable verdict will be. There is no scene of the jury's final decision! A quick fade-cut is made to the firing squad preparing for the execution, where an announcement of the schedule and weapons is made by the commanding sergeant.

The decision of the tribunal is as expected - the men are declared guilty, and sentenced to be shot at dawn (7 o'clock). In their dark prison cell, the three convicted prisoners talk about their fate, as they are served their last meal on an immense tray. The repast is a duck dinner "compliments of General Mireau" but without utensils - they have been forbidden knives and forks. They are unable to eat their last dinner anyway. Ferol thinks of escape. Arnaud puts his faith in Colonel Dax, possibly for a last-minute reprieve. Paris wonders if they have friends among the guards.

Corporal Paris spots a cockroach:

See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It will have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.

Ferol crushes the cockroach and adds:

Now you've got the edge on him.

A door slams and a priest (Emile Meyer) enters and helps the men prepare themselves for their death sentence, comforting them: "Have faith in your Creator - Death comes to us all." Uncontrollably, Ferol weeps and whines in the face of death, and Paris gives the priest a letter for his wife, and begins to give his confession. However, Arnaud - an athiest, who has been drinking, criticizes the sanctimonious priest: "That's really deep! Death comes to us all." Holding up his whiskey bottle, he combatively declares: "This is my religion," and struggles with the priest and the others.

To subdue him after he has attacked the priest, Paris punches Arnaud, striking his head on the wall and sending him to the stone floor unconscious with a fractured skull. The doctor examines Arnaud, explaining that with his serious injury, he may not live through the night or may be unconscious the next day. He suggests that he should be pinched awake during the execution - "the general wants him to be conscious."

Dax summons Lieutenant Roget to his quarters and orders the reluctant officer the assignment of supervising the firing squad - a job which requires putting a bullet in each prisoner's head afterwards: "...You've got the job. It's all yours." Only hours before the scheduled execution, Dax is awakened and given information by Captain Rousseau, the artillery officer during the attack who was ordered by Mireau to fire on the retreating French. The additional material may have some bearing on the court-martial.

The film cuts to the chateau and the ballroom where the court-martial case was held. A dress officers' ball is in progress that evening with light chamber music playing. Dax asks to see General Broulard to report the new information he has just learned. The general leaves the ball to meet with Dax in the book-lined library. Broulard concedes that the records of casualties show that Dax's men did prove themselves. Dax asks how the men can be executed if that is true. Broulard replies that the execution will still proceed, with beneficial results:

Maybe the attack against the Ant Hill was impossible. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been a little more daring, you might have taken it. Who knows? Why should we have to bear more criticism and failure than we have to?...These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division. There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die...You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.

Dax will not let the comments drop - he is shocked at what he has heard. Opening the door, General Broulard attempts to return to the party. Dax mentions that he has irrefutable proof - in the form of sworn statements by the men who witnessed General Mireau ordering his own battery commander to shell his own position during the attack. The door slams shut upon his hearing of the faux pas. General Broulard remains inside and asks: "What has all this got to do with the charge against the condemned prisoners?" Dax implies that the execution would not proceed if all the pressure groups knew Mireau's actions to fire on his own men:

What would your, er, newspapers and your politicians do with that? are in a difficult position. Too much has happened. Someone's got to be hurt. The only question is who. General Mireau's assault on the Ant Hill failed. His order to fire on his own troops was refused. But his attempt to murder three innocent men to protect his own reputation will be prevented by the General's staff.

Broulard accuses Dax of blackmail, but then excuses himself, explaining how he has been rude to his guests too long. Unresponsive, Broulard does not indicate what he will do - will he pardon the men and mercifully stay their execution in time?

In the next scene, the morning of the execution is signaled by the crowing of a rooster. Regimented ranks of guard soldiers approach and enter the prisoners' room. Arnaud is strapped unconscious on a stretcher, Ferol continues to pray and kneel with a priest, and Paris is soberly silent and looks stoically resigned to his fate. As they are preparing to be escorted to their place of execution, Paris is offered a final drink. He remarks: "I haven't had one sexual thought since the court-martial. It's pretty extraordinary, isn't it?" And then he bursts into tears, breaking down and pleading for his life. He is encouraged by the rigid sergeant to pull himself together and not reveal his cowardice:

There will be a lot of dignitaries, newspapermen out there. You've got a wife and family. How do you want to be remembered?...Many of us will be joining you before this war is over.

Paris simply replies: "I don't want to die."

Troops are assembled before the chateau, with officers in full dress uniforms. In the tense, 7-minute firing squad scene, drums monotonously sound in the background as the prisoners are marched between lines of soldiers to the open area near the chateau, where three stakes are set up. The upright execution stakes grow larger and larger as the men and the camera approach. (Arnaud is carried unconscious and tied on a stretcher.) Inconsolable, Ferol whines, sobs, moans, clutches his rosary, and hangs on to the priest, asking: "What do I have to die for, Father?...I'm scared, I'm scared." The men are tied to the stakes, and Lieutenant Roget offers them blindfolds. Caskets wait in an open cart to the side. The words of the indictment and official execution are nervously read by Major Saint-Auban. Generals Broulard and Mireau stand nearby, as do other dignitaries to witness the final judgment. The firing squad raises its weapons (the ominous drum roll stops), readies, aims (with the commands: "Ready, Aim") - birds twitter - and then fires at the command to "Fire" - filmed subjectively from behind the firing squad. The victims momentarily twitch and then collapse dead.

The film makes a quick cut to a high-angle view of the High Command breakfast table of Mireau and Broulard, where they eat croissants and exult in the dignified sacrifice - and ironically discuss 'bad taste'!:

Mireau: I'm awfully glad you could be there, George. This sort of thing is always rather grim but this one had a kind of splendor to it, don't you think?

Broulard: I have never seen an affair of this sort handled any better.

Mireau: The men died wonderfully! There's always that chance that one of them will do something that will leave everyone with a bad taste. This time, you couldn't ask for better.

Dax joins their company, and is congratulated by the manner in which his men died. Then suddenly, Broulard - the dissimulating instigator of the entire travesty - remarks offhandedly to Mireau that he knows of his order to fire on his own men during the Ant Hill attack. He indicates that it was Dax who informed him. He knows that he is setting up Mireau to be the disgraced scapegoat for the entire affair - the fourth execution. Broulard informs him cheerfully and smoothly that he must submit to an inquiry for his incompetence: "There'll have to be an inquiry."

After being exposed, Mireau is enraged at him before striding out: "You're making me the goat. The only completely innocent man in this whole affair. I have only one last thing to say to you, George. The man you stabbed in the back is a soldier." Defeated and lacking honor, Mireau exits from their presence.

Turning to Dax, Broulard smiles, shrugs and sighs: "Well, it had to be done. France cannot afford to have fools guiding her military destiny." He then smiles and offers Dax, with congratulations, General Mireau's vacated command. After all, he has cynically assumed that Dax had selfishly wanted the promotion from the start:

Come, come, Colonel Dax. Don't overdo the surprise. You've been after the job from the start. We all know that, my boy.

But Broulard has mistaken Dax's integrity. Infuriated and in contempt, Dax replies that he has seen through the politicking and is not interested in furthering his own fortunes: "I may be many things, sir. But I am not your boy." The corrupt general is hurt: "It would be a pity to lose your promotion before you get it - a promotion you have so very carefully planned for." Dax refuses the promotion, telling him what he can do with it. This forces Broulard to command Dax to apologize: "Colonel Dax, you will apologize at once or you shall be placed under arrest!" Dax then apologizes, but berates him for his moral degeneracy:

I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL BEFORE I APOLOGIZE TO YOU NOW OR EVER AGAIN.

The general realizes he has misjudged and misinterpreted Dax, who has shown real humanity for his soldiers. Broulard cooly explains his reasoning for the soldiers' execution and for Mireau's inquiry:

Colonel Dax, you're a disappointment to me. You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command. You are an idealist - and I pity you as I would the village idiot. We're fighting a war, Dax, a war that we've got to win. Those men didn't fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist that he answer them.

And then he innocently appeals: "Wherein have I done wrong?" Dax gasps and replies bluntly and quietly: "Because you don't know the answer to that question, I pity you." Dax walks back to his post alone.

In the final memorable sequence of the film, Dax wanders in the streets of the town towards his quarters. He hears lecherous, cat-call whistling and shouting in a nearby tavern, where men from his troops are getting drunk for "a little diversion" (according to the master of ceremonies tavern keeper) following the execution. He stands outside in the doorway, witnessing the coaxing of a frightened, fragile, teary-eyed and innocent German blonde girl (Susanne Christian in the credits, actually Christiane Harlan, director Kubrick's future third and last wife). She may be a prisoner, or a refugee who is forced to sing a song in front of rowdy soldiers who are cat-calling, hooting, and laughing at her.

The girl is introduced by the tavern keeper as "our latest acquisition from the enemy...from Germany, the land of the Hun!" She is "a little pearl washed ashore by the tide of war" who has "a little natural talent" (he gestures over her physical curves) and "she can sing like a bird - she has a throat of gold." Dax recognizes companions of the executed men and is disappointed by their apparent lustful callousness shortly following the death of their own comrades. In front of the raucous troops, the timid and fragile young girl - with tears on her cheeks - begins to sing a ballad - in German. [It is a universally-known folk song of love in war, called "The Faithful Soldier" - (La Treue Hussar (Fr.) or Der treue Hussar (Ger.)).] It is a simple, sweet song that is inaudible until the audience quiets down and listens intently and respectfully to her plaintive voice. Soon, hers is the only voice in the tavern:

(loosely translated, in part)

A faithful soldier, without fear,

He loved his girl for one whole year,

For one whole year and longer yet,

His love for her, he'd ne'er forget.

This youth to foreign land did roam,

While his true love, fell ill at home.

Sick unto death, she no one heard.

Three days and nights she spoke no word.

And when the youth received the news,

That his dear love, her life may lose,

He left his place and all he had,

To see his love, went this young lad...

He took her in his arms to hold,

She was not warm, forever cold.

Oh quick, oh quick, bring light to me,

Else my love dies, no one will see...

Pallbearers we need two times three,

Six farmhands they are so heavy.

It must be six of soldiers brave,

To carry my love to her grave.

A long black coat, I must now wear.

A sorrow great, is what I bear.

A sorrow great and so much more,

My grief it will end nevermore.

The soldiers - for once affected and showing some regard for human life - join her and hum along with their faces drawn to her. The human feelings in the song transcend the language barriers - some of the French soldiers may know the tune of their enemy's song, and some may even know the words. One of the youngest recruits in the audience has tears flowing down his cheeks. The song evokes memories of their youth, their homes, and their loves in a world they may never see again. There is still a hint of their common humanity and sensitivity in the men despite the misery and depravity of war.

Suddenly, Dax, who has been watching and listening impassively, receives a message from another officer with orders to return his unit immediately to the front's trenches - little has changed in the war. Still in charge, Broulard has transferred Dax and his men back to the front. To give his men the "short" rest they were promised but never fully received following the assault on Ant Hill, Dax replies, with the film's last line:

Well, give the men a few minutes more, sergeant.

The sound of drums and military music playing the "Soldier Boy" song rise in volume and drown out the sound of the folk song, as Dax returns to his quarters down the street.

Source: Tim Dirks,


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