I’ll start with a good ‘un.
I’ve watched a LOT of 1st World War films and I can safely say that a great majority of them are bad. Some are terrible (Deathwatch for instance, but I’ll come back to that…..one day).
As a genre the films suffer due to the nature of the conflict. Trench based films need to be claustrophobic and have a fickle view of life and death. A star lead getting the top of his head split open by an enemy sniper before the end of the first reel doesn’t make for a box office hit. Neither would long weeks of doing nothing except fighting the mud and lice. The reality of life in the trenches does nothing to help create a narrative full of twists and turns.
The good trench films tend to succeed when two key ingredients are present. Firstly, the comparison between trench life and the pomp and ceremony of life behind the lines has to be present and well handled. The stereotype of the blinkered, buffoon Commander chucking swathe after swathe of his long suffering men forward into walls of hot lead counterparted by the real world, just like us, down trodden Tommy. With letters from his sweetheart at home and flashbacks to idyllic days boating and carousing in long grass. I am egging the pudding slightly here but you get the picture.
Secondly, a good trench film has to have dynamite battle scenes. The fickle nature of the battlefield must shine through. A slow procession of men forcing themselves forward at walking pace into enemy fire, getting caught on barbs of wire supposedly cut by days of preparatory barrages, a bullet denting a helmet with a ping and then seconds later a direct shell hit creating a red mist out of the previously lucky helmet wearer. The noises, the utter fear, the wretched smell of the dead from previous battles churned to the surface and flung high and wide by shellfire. Bring these core ingredients to my kitchen, add a soupcon of cinematography, a pinch of edginess and 2 eggs and I’ll give you a masterpiece.
My first film, Paths of Glory (1957) has been chosen to represent the best on offer for anyone wanting to get their teeth into 1st World War films. The two key ingredients are present along with one other that helped guarantee it’s place in history. It’s a Kubrick film, an early one granted, but his presence is clearly visible. He co-wrote the script based on the anti-war book of the same name that was itself based loosely on the real life story of four French soldiers chosen at random to be tried for the crimes of their battalion. A Roman style decimation for not following orders. The book had been bandied around the Hollywood studios for a long time with none of them having the palate to make a film with such a provocative subject matter. Kubrick struggled as well to get backing until he got Kirk Douglas interested in the project.
The enemy in Paths of Glory was not the Germans, it was an enemy within. A scheming Commander holed up a safe distance from the guns. Portraying the blood lust General as the enemy may seem now as a slightly hackneyed plot, in some part due to Blackadder Goes Forth of course, but this is a modern interpretation. In the days after the War and indeed into the fairly recent past General Hague and those of his type were viewed as strong patriotic leaders doing their best with the men, the hardware and the situations they were confronted with, many experts still argue this unfashionable viewpoint. To paint a General as a maniacal, bastard, waster of human life was an inflammatory move likely to draw criticism.
Kubrick adds to the ‘them and us’ style narrative with some of the best battle scenes ever filmed. I will review All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) at some point in the future but for now I’ll simply say that Kubrick must’ve seen it (in slow-motion and multiple times) as the battle scenes in Paths of Glory are (nearly) as good as those in ‘All Quiet…’.
These battle field scenes succeed mainly due to the long tracking shots and amazing choreography. You can see the troop’s sense of impending death ebb away as successes are made before the situation quickly turns on it’s head and they drop dead one after another. The advance falters and halts. You can see Kirk Douglas thinking if it’s better to turn and retreat over his own dead men and have their deaths mean nothing or push his troops on and inflict further suffering upon them.
The (over) acting is slightly schticky with dodgy accents in parts but for 1957 I think that’s par for the course. Kirk Douglas plays his part well. The opening reverse tracking shot of him walking with purpose through a maze of trenches sets his character in the mind of the viewer and he waltzes through the rest of the film in a similar vein. With confidence and an ill ease at times he portrays a man in two minds and stuck within a situation he has no control over.
I won’t give away the story in any of these reviews (unless it’s to tell you why you shouldn’t bother seeing a particular film) so I’ll finish by simply saying Paths of Glory is a truly great Great War Film. I’m not alone in this view, Peter Jackson names it in his top five 1st World War films, Roger Ebert rated it highly and said something nice about it that I’ve forgotten. It turns up towards the top of general Best Film lists. I saw it yesterday up at the business end of a Greatest 100 films of All Time list on Rotten Tomato. The pedigree lent to it by Kubrick is well earned, the storyline makes me angry every time I watch it and the battle scenes show (as best they can on celluloid) the true nature of trench based conflict and the realities of going over the top.
So, to conclude. ‘Them and Us’ centrepiece plot..Check. Shit hot battle scenes..Check. Kubrick…..Check. Hot dog, we have a wiener! So please, if you haven’t already, see this film. It’s as good as they get.
You can Clicky Clicky and buy it from Amazon if you have the urge.