Stanley Kubrick is one of the most heralded directors in history, and he made two classic war, or more accurately anti-war films. Interestingly, they focused on two of the major conflicts of the 20th century, but ones separated by approximately 50 years – World War I and the Vietnam War.
Both of these films feature stark, two act narratives. The first, Paths of Glory (1957), opens on the battlefields of France in 1926, before switching into courtroom drama mode in the second half. The narrative concerns a platoon led by Colonel Dax being ordered into a suicidal mission by his superiors. These superiors are motivated not by the prospects of the battle being a success, or its effect on the overall war effort, but rather on the fame that victory will bring them. Despite knowing the chances of victory are pretty much zero and the pleadings of Dax, the men are sent into battle and basically annihilated. The scenes of trench warfare here are brilliant. Kubrick takes a side-on view of the men as they run through the mud, barbed wire, shit and dead bodies of no-man’s land in a spectacular tracking shot, as good as anything of Kubrick’s I have seen. The fact that the film is black and white enhances the atmosphere of these sequences greatly, rather than inhibiting them in any way. But these shots, and indeed the narrative are subservient to the message. The disconnect between the men on the frontline, and the commanders sitting far away in a castle is a reoccurring theme throughout the film, one also explored in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). These commanders seem content in their professed knowledge that “naturally men will have to be killed” – just as long as it’s not them of course. These are all pertinent questions as well. Who decides when it is ok for a young man or woman’s life to be sacrificed? How can another quantify what risk is worth taking with another’s life? The other major suggestion Kubrick makes through the film’s first half relates to the futility of war. Especially one where as we’re told, victories are measured in hundreds of yards and losses in hundreds of thousands (of troops).
The second part of this film is essentially a courtroom drama. After the disastrous offensive, several of Dax’s men are charged with cowardice by his superiors. In harrowing scenes three men are chosen, essentially at random, to face the charges as representatives of the supposedly inherently cowardly group. The fact that these three men are eventually sentenced to death, is a clear statement on the folly of the death penalty, applicable equally to both military and civilian life. Whilst as a piece of pure filmic enjoyment these scenes (especially early on) definitely lag behind the first half they work as a vehicle to evoke the script’s concerns. Following the three men’s condemning the film again takes another tonal shift, becoming a tense piece with the hour of execution fast approaching. I was genuinely unsure as to whether or not they would be executed. I mean it seemed they would, but this is a Hollywood film so surely the hero Dax would be able to pull it off. The plight of the condemned men, with their horrible emotional rollercoaster is brilliantly conveyed here. The repeated and committed efforts of Dax to alert his commanders to the downright stupidity of the whole situation also enhances hopes that the men will be spared. “There are times when I’m ashamed to be part of the human race, and this is one of them” he pleads whilst denouncing the inhumane and unfair nature of the military court (Guantanamo Bay anyone?). The attitude of the military hierarchy when they state that the executions will be a good “tonic for morale” are a scary premonition to the attitudes depicted in Errol Morris’ much later non-fiction film The Thin Blue Line (1988). I won’t ruin the outcome of all this for you, but I encourage you to check it out. Hopefully you find it as tense and difficult to pick as I did (I’m pretty confident you will).
The narrative is anchored by two pretty exceptional performances. Kirk Douglas – he of the imperious hair – gives a similarly imperious performance in this film. His moral guardian character is a man forced to, and happy to make the tough calls. When he slips into lawyer mode in the film’s second half, he fights just as doggedly as his character does on the battlefield. The early portraits painted of the men in this film are of cowardice and backstabbing. Douglas’ Colonel Dax sweeps this away when he bravely leads his men over the troops on their suicide mission. The character is summed up best by one of his slimy superiors who toward the end of the film labels him an “idealist” like it’s the worse possible insult and states that he “pities” him. The other standout performance is Ralph Meeker in the stoic supporting role of Corporal Paris. Actually if anything he probably outdoes Douglas, tactfully but emotionally presenting the rollercoaster emotions of a condemned man. The scene where he breaks down in front of a former commander, overwhelmed with pain with the lot he has drawn is extremely affecting, as is his former colleague’s response. Meeker is able to realistically convey his character’s equal measures of nobility and vulnerability in an exceptional acting display
Some criticism has been made of the film’s ending. But I think it works exceptionally well, and rather than a sense of sentimentality detractors claim is there, I think it leaves the viewer with food for thought. The scene shows Dax’s platoon boozing in a bar. A scared German girl is paraded on stage, at which point the drunk men scream horrible abuses at her. She is then forced against her will to sing a song. When her song kicks in, the men stop their abuses and begin to hum and sing along. Finally the film cuts to an outside shot which shows Dax watching on, and being informed that his 701st contingent has been ordered back to the front immediately, at which point he asks to give the men a few more minutes of peace. This sequence raises a multitude of issues for me. Firstly the way the innocent woman is abused by the men looking to let off some steam. How are soldiers to use their spare time in war? Because they are fighting for a just cause (lets assume they are), is that a licence to booze and shag as they please? How are we to treat innocent parties caught up in the war, the wives and children of the evil forces we are battling?
Also I don’t think the soldiers humming along is sentimental, I think it represents the one moment of peace they experience throughout the whole film. This was one of many points throughout the film that I thought of the Australian men my age and even younger fighting wars abroad as I write. Feelings concerning the validity of these wars are irrelevant in these considerations. The film merely makes me wonder whether or not these men (boys?) ever get their moments of peace. And I wonder how quickly and brutally that moment of peace is snapped away from them – just as it is in the film when the men are ordered back to the frontline, with the film closing to the same marching type music it opened with, symbolising that nothing has really changed for these men. One measure of a great work of art is its timelessness. And 53 years after its release, this film made me more emotional and thoughtful regarding my country’s current war efforts than any film of the last ten years, and a vast majority of newscasts during that time.
This, distinctly anti-war film, raises a number of interesting issues in its running time. It is not merely offering the blanket suggestion that all wars are evil and they should never occur, rather it is a more nuanced wartime universe that prevails. Like all great ‘message’ films it also works fantastically as an enjoyable, engaging piece besides the message.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Probably the more well known of these two films is Full Metal Jacket (1987). The Vietnam conflict was also a more obvious one in which to ground an anti-war narrative. However despite being a much more confrontational film, the message takes a bit of a back seat in this one.
And confrontational is the key here, if anything the film is too confrontational. The first act follows a group of new soldiers as they undergo their training (indoctrination?). Their hair is shaved brutally and uncaringly whilst their rather over the top (real-life) drill-sergeant delights in calling them maggots and continually reminding them that they are worthless bits of scum. This somewhat caricature of a character provides such quotable nuggets of dialogue as “I will gouge out your eyeballs and skullfuck you”. The character throughout this sequence, except for maybe his very last involvement, is played for strange laughs. The stated goal of this brutal physical and psychological training is to turn these impressionable young men into “weapons” who will be “praying for war”. I watched this, and took my notes long before the ADFA scandal broke, but this is an interesting insight into a military training institution. I hope that things are rather different in our country and in this day and age. And although I doubt threats of skullfucking are made too regularly, it is apparent that there are still issues with the way that young men (and women) are converted into the weapons that war requires.
A very young, puppy-fat clad, Vincent D’Onofrio is extremely engaging through these early scenes as the woefully out of his depth Gomer Pyle. Being a physical specimen who is not cut out for the rigours of Army training sees Pyle come in for horrific, confronting treatment at the hands of both the trainers and his peers. His faults see him viciously cut out of the cult-like atmosphere within the training regiment. The last sequences involving Pyle disappointingly see him lose the engaging quality he earlier displayed. Instead he resorts to ‘Jack Nicholson in the Shining-lite’ overacting. And D’Onofrio is not a good enough actor to pull it off. Or perhaps more to the point, this part of the film jars badly with what has preceded it. This is meant to be a war message film, not a horror one and what should be the film’s emotional tipping point instead sees it lose its way. That said this scene, huge spoiler alert is shot with some real Kubrickian style. The killing of the major by Pyle comes in slow-mo with blood splattering toward the camera. Pyle’s suicide that immediately follows is graphic, with blood and brain matter splattering over the toilet. Perhaps a suggestion that it is another young life simply flushed down the loo for no good reason?
Halfway through the film, action shifts to Vietnam, a place populated by American soldiers and “these people” as the Vietnamese are disparagingly referred to. Narratively the film loses its way during this second, battlefield half. This is intentional on Kubrick’s part, perhaps a comment on the perceived futility of the Vietnam War, a sense of going round and round and never making any coherent progress. But there are other ways to convey this rather then making this half of the film have essentially no coherent narrative thread. It starts off well, taking an interesting approach to telling this kind of story. Joker, one of the marines seen in the early training scenes is now working as a military journalist in Vietnam. Here he is permitted to tell two kinds of stories. Ones that wins hearts and minds, or ones about the Americans winning the war. There are some pertinent statements here on the manner in which bureaucracy runs propaganda campaigns.
The switch for Joker to the battleground comes in an expertly shot and disturbing helicopter sequence. The stark imagery of the Vietnamese countryside being crossed by behemoth American choppers is contrasted with the horrific actions of an American soldier who shoots fleeing peasants from above as they desperately run for safety. The film’s inherent quotability continues through the second part of the film, mainly to highlight the utter disrespect and arrogance on the part of the Americans. “Inside every Gook is an American.” There are also horrific images that for me were way too pertinent. American soldiers comically posing with corpses of Vietnamese killed in battle. Similar images have recently surfaced from America’s conflict in Afghanistan with quotes from the soldiers involved dismissing the Afghani people as mere savages. Shamefully, it appears some things have still not changed. Throughout this part of the film, Kubrick repeatedly uses the technique of having the soldiers talk directly to the camera, making it feel as though they are talking directly to the viewer. This is especially affecting and successful when Kubrick establishes the camera they are talking directly to, as the point of view of two soldiers who have just been gunned down. Making what is said all the more eerie and arresting. Unfortunately Joker suddenly seems to stop being a journalist meaning that interesting journo-centric dynamic is lost. Rather it’s just one meaningless battle out of context after another.
The closing couple of scenes however are among the film’s most brilliant and affecting. A Vietnamese female sniper begs to be shot, and Joker grapples with the conundrum of whether he should grant her wish or not. Then the soldiers march away singing the Mickey Mouse troop song. Who’s the leader of the troop? Mickey Mouse.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs