Against Kubrick 11

Welcome to the final installment of my 11-part polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I began this series in October 2010, and it was one of the main reasons why I started this blog. I just had to get this off my chest.

If you wish to start at the beginning of my Against Kubrick series, you can follow these links:

From the beginning, I identified four great Kubrick films to investigate: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As I said then:

These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings.

I felt his other films were either not worthy of their director’s genius or were not indicative of my main thesis, namely that Kubrick has a bitter grudge against humanity and that he was anything but a humanist.

Later, I included Barry Lyndon (1974) because I had finally seen it and decided it would make a worthy contribution to this series.

Now, I would like to close the series with a brief discussion on Kubrick’s one truly humanistic (and, in my opinion, greatest) film: Paths of Glory from 1957.

paths-of-glory_kirk-douglas

Welcome to the final installment of my 11-part polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I began this series in October 2010, and it was one of the main reasons why I started this blog. I just had to get this off my chest.

If you wish to start at the beginning of my Against Kubrick series, you can follow these links:

From the beginning, I identified four great Kubrick films to investigate: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As I said then:

These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings.

I felt his other films were either not worthy of their director’s genius or were not indicative of my main thesis, namely that Kubrick has a bitter grudge against humanity and that he was anything but a humanist.

Later, I included Barry Lyndon (1974) because I had finally seen it and decided it would make a worthy contribution to this series.

Now, I would like to close the series with a brief discussion on Kubrick’s one truly humanistic (and, in my opinion, greatest) film: Paths of Glory from 1957.

paths-of-glory_kirk-douglas

With Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick is actually on the side of humanity. To many of his cynical and sophisticated fans, his humanism may seem corny or naïve. To me, however, it is gut-wrenching and life-affirming. We’re in the French army during World War I, and three innocent soldiers are selected to be shot for cowardice. They are being held up as an example for the entire army, you see. It’s up to the honorable Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, to save them.

That’s a heck of a plot hook, isn’t it?

In Paths of Glory, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s definitely a duck, despite what the duck may tell you. You can find much of the cynicism of Kubrick’s later films in Paths of Glory, sure. But here only characters suffused with hypocrisy and arrogance exhibit such cynicism. We despise these characters. Further, we sympathize plaintively with their victims and root for the honorable men fighting against them. Where in any other Kubrick film do we do that?

The first aspect of Kubrick’s humanism on display in Paths of Glory is his respect for the Truth (note the capital ‘T’). The audience is always acquainted with it and is never given reason to doubt it. General Mireau emphatically rejects the order to take the well-fortified German position known as the Anthill. It’s a suicide mission, he explains, and there would be terribly casualties. His attitude changes quickly however when his superior General Broulard waves a promotion in front of him. Clearly tempted, Mireau waxes on and on about his loyalty to his men and how important their safety is, but his pompous airs tell another story. Of course, he wastes no time in ordering his men to storm the Anthill.

This duality plays an important role in Paths of Glory. There’s what you say and what you do. There’s what happens and what doesn’t happen. There’s what should happen and what shouldn’t happen. And the audience is in on all of it.

Lieutenant Roget panics on patrol and needlessly hurls a grenade, killing one of his own men. But that’s not what he reports to Colonel Dax, of course. Corporal Paris sees the whole thing, but Roget blackmails him into keeping quiet. So Roget is basically a scoundrel. A lying, cowardly, hypocritical scoundrel. The audience sees that and hates him for it. In later Kubrick films, such a character would be the clever anti-hero (as in A Clockwork Orange) or the handsome protagonist (as in Barry Lyndon). Such a character would be likable. In Paths of Glory, however, he’s a straight up villain. Imagine that. A villain in a Stanley Kubrick film.

Out of frustration because some of his men were unable to leave their trenches, Mireau orders artillery to be fired on French positions. When Dax accuses him of this before Broulard, he denies it, of course, and walks off in a huff declaring himself an honest man. In Paths of Glory we despise the hypocrite because of the way he abuses the Truth. Is this not a humanistic perspective?

Kubrick’s sets further display this duality as well as provide a sense of what’s real versus what’s unreal. The film opens in a vast chateau with Mireau and Broulard chatting about art and carpets. Kubrick never lets us forget the vastness of the interior, its beauty, its elegance, its opulence and superfluity.

Chateau

Compare this to his brutal and relentless treatment of the trenches. He tracks through one like a rat in a subterranean maze for nearly one and a half minutes before making a cut.

trenches

Kubrick is not just contrasting the trenches with the chateau. He showing us how real wars are fought and where the price in blood is paid.

Another duality of Paths of Glory deals with the nature of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Are we mere animals? Or are we something more?

When inspecting the trenches, Broulard is told that there had been 29 casualties from the night before, and blames the men for grouping together on the battlefield thereby making them easier to hit. His smug subordinate Major Saint-Auban and Dax then have the following exchange:

Saint-Auban: Well, they never learn it seems. They get in a tight spot under heavy fire. Gang up every time. Herd instinct, I suppose. Kind of a lower animal kind of thing.

Dax: Or kind of a human sort of thing, it seems to me. Or don’t you make a distinction between the two, Major?

When Dax is brought to the Chateau after the Anthill fiasco, Mireau forces him to answer for the fact that a portion of his regiment never left the trenches.

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.

Notice how blithely Mireau applies scientific scrutiny to human beings in war. So are we no better than lab rats now? Dax knows this isn’t true. More importantly, so does the audience. Also, the audience gets the chance to witness how Dax’s men were pinned down in their trenches by enemy fire. They witness Dax himself attempting a charge and failing. So we know what the truth is. We always know the Truth in Paths of Glory.

Perhaps Kubrick’s crowning achievement in this film is the courtroom sequence. The French army leadership, embarrassed by their failure to take the Anthill, decides to try and execute three men for cowardice. Colonel Dax then represents these men as council during the trial. Throughout, soldiers stand at attention, either hulking in the foreground as ominous shadows…

Courtroom2

…or in the background like the sculptures which festoon the great walls.

Courtroom1

Earlier, they had been marching like clockwork while the officers lounged in their upholstered chairs and divans. The dichotomy is purely cinematic and impossible to ignore. Throw in the superb performances of the actors (Kirk Douglas especially) and a tight, evocative script, and you have filmmaking at its very best.

Watch and behold…

During this scene, it becomes clear that this trial is little more than rigmarole. The French army will have its cowards and will make an example of them, truth be damned. There is no evidence that Dax can provide that the court will consider. So what’s the point?

While making his final statement, Colonel Dax says the following:

Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race. And this is one such occasion.

Where’s the irony? Where’s the sarcasm? You can keep looking for it, but it isn’t there. Kubrick’s humanism wouldn’t allow it. Only a profoundly humanistic film could have a protagonist say such a line without the slightest hint of irony. The human race is a good thing, you see. Or, it’s supposed to be…despite the fact that many of its members are not very good, and are often very bad.

The end of Paths of Glory is certainly one of the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema. A captive German girl is dragged out on a stage to sing for French troops before they return to the front. As Colonel Dax watches, they react to her with lewdness and loud, coarse behavior. So this is what Dax had been fighting for? A humanity that can’t rise above its lower urges? Are we really no better than animals after all?

But then in a beautiful moment, the girl begins to sing, and the men become overcome with emotion and sing along with her. Faith in humanity is restored. Where in any other great Stanley Kubrick film can we say that? In fact, where in any other great Kubrick film are women so sympathetically portrayed? While the bad guys win in Paths of Glory, they don’t all come out unscathed. Yet the true victor, in the eyes of the audience as filtered through Colonel Dax, is humanity itself. Again, where in any other great Kubrick work does this happen?

girlsinging

Nowhere, that’s where.

During his final argument, Dax calls the trial “a mockery of all human justice.” And he’s right.

But this trial can also be viewed as a microcosm of the remainder of Stanley Kubrick’s directing career. What goes on during the trial that you cannot say doesn’t go on in his other great films? You have weak, hypocritical elites doing great harm, as in Dr. Strangelove. You have the idea that human life is not very consequential, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have psychopathic killers who get away with murder, as in A Clockwork Orange. And you have a willful denial of Truth, as in Full Metal Jacket.

Don’t believe me?

In Dr. Strangelove after it’s too late to stop World War Three, President Muffley and General Jack Ripper are encouraged by the fact that the post-apocalyptic mineshafts they will soon inhabit will have a 10-to-1 female-to-male ratio and that women will be selected for their “sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.” This is a good thing, you see. Well, the ex-Nazi titular character seems to think so. So how is this not a “mockery of human justice” when the American leadership during the Cold War was absolutely nothing like this?

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick presents the death of humans in an extremely offhanded way. We get mere seconds of one astronaut dying in space. We get a few more when the ones in cryogenic sleep are killed. Oh, but when supercomputer HAL dies, well, we get to witness every single excruciating second of that, as if a computer singing a little ditty in its death throes were more meaningful than an innocent man suffocating in space. Is humanity worth so little to Kubrick? He portrays us either as robot-like, as with his dry, soulless astronauts, or as complete savages, like the ape men in the beginning of the film who learn to brain each other with clubs. And this is supposed to be a good thing. It represents then next step in our advancement of humans. So, the Sermon on the Mount, the Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Geneva Conventions…that stuff doesn’t matter. No, of course not. Braining people with clubs. That’s where it’s at when it comes to judging the advancement of humanity. That’s all that we humans are good for anyway. So why not waste a few of them to make an example for the rest of the French army? The point is to win the war, right? Would you rather be killed by the club, or be the one swinging it?

In A Clockwork Orange, a psychopath kills in cold blood and gets away with it by pretending to be a victim and then faking rehabilitation. He thinks this is a good thing as well. “I was cured all right,” he tells us. How are Generals Mireau and Broulard any different? They are victims too, you see. Their brilliant plan to storm the Anthill was foiled by a bunch of “sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs” too cowardly to leave their trenches. Imagine how that will look to the politicians and newspapers editors who so unfairly judge them? So of course they need to waste three innocent men to prevent this from ever happening again. And, like the psychopath in A Clockwork Orange, they get away with it.

In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick places the US Army and the whole Vietnam War effort on trial. And what do we get? No witnesses for the defense. No evidence for the defense.  And who would want to defend American GI’s anyway? They’re just a bunch whoring bullies who glorify killing and sing happy songs after wasting little girls, right? And the American troops, including our hero in the end, sees this is a good thing. Clearly the North Vietnamese were better. Only they weren’t. And most of the American soldiers were not like how Kubrick portrayed them at all. But that matters as much as the innocence of the three men executed in Paths of Glory. That matters as much as Truth to Kubrick. Which is not.

At least not since Paths of Glory, which is when he last exhibited extensive humanism in his art. Unfortunately for those of us who appreciate the genius of Stanley Kubrick, that is not a good thing. In fact, it is a bitter shame.

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

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