by **Jake Whitney**
The best anti-war film ever made is not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove, as conventional wisdom often holds, but another of his films — his 1957 masterpiece, Paths of Glory.
The first time I watched it I was in my office gym. Channel surfing between sets of bench presses, I landed on it during one of its most memorable scenes: Kirk Douglas, as Dax, a colonel in the French army, storms down a World War I trench in a searing point-of-view shot. The weary soldiers that pack the trench — talking, smoking, mulling about — erect themselves and form rows, making way for the colonel. As Dax passes, with mortars exploding everywhere, his face is pure rage. The soldiers glare at him — at us — with expressions of resigned fatality. Dax has been ordered to lead them in a virtual suicide mission. The men understand this, and the knowledge is etched grimly on their dirty faces.
The dramatic thump-thump of the mortars, the rapturous black-and-white cinematography, the extended you-are-there POV shot; it was obviously the work of a master. But I didn’t realize it was Kubrick until the credits rolled. Needless to say, I didn’t achieve much of a workout that day. Hooked from the trench scene, I was quickly drawn into the plot, which involves a vain French general who demands that three soldiers, chosen at random, be executed as “an example” to the other men, who decided to retreat rather than be butchered. The French General Staff is portrayed as petty and narcissistic, tucked away in their palatial chateau, drinking cognac and eating caviar while their soldiers fight and die in the mud. The chateau’s checkered marble floor is like a chessboard from where the generals push their troops around, as disposable as pawns.
Another memorable scene: A group of French troops drags a captured German singer onto a small stage, forcing her to perform for their benefit. She’s a beautiful blond girl, crying and terrified. The troops laugh and hoot, answering her desperate pleas with cat calls. Then she begins her song. A hush falls over the soldiers who are charmed by the soft melody. Gradually, they begin to hum along. Just a murmur at first, the humming slowly grows until the troops are belting out the melody in unison, tears falling from their eyes. The song is in German, so the troops don’t know what this beautiful, homesick prisoner is singing about. But of course they know exactly what she is singing about.
Copyright 2010 Jake Whitney
Jake Whitney is a writer originally from the Bay Area who now lives in Westchester. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Republic, the San Francisco Chronicle, Editor & Publisher, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, and many others. Jake holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Iona College. His most recent Guernica piece can be read here.