Remembering Douglas, Kubrick and Ebert. Thank you.
Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) closes with a scene that doesn’t seem organic to the movie. We’ve seen harrowing battlefield carnage, a morally rotten court-martial, French army generals corrupt and cynical beyond all imagining, and now what do we see? Drunken soldiers, crowded into a bistro, banging their beer steins on the tables as the owner brings a frightened German girl onstage.
He makes lascivious remarks about her figure and cruel ones about her lack of talent, but she has been captured and must be forced to perform. Hoots and whistles arise from the crowd. The frightened girl begins to sing. The noise from the crowd dies away. Her tremulous voice fills the room. She sings “The Faithful Hussar.” A hush falls, and some of the soldiers begin to hum the notes; they know the song but not the words.
If the singing of “La Marseillaise” in a bar in “Casablanca” was a call to patriotism, this scene is an argument against it. It creates a moment of quiet and tenderness in the daily horror these soldiers occupy — a world in which generals casually estimated that 55 percent of these very men might be killed in a stupid attack and found that acceptable.
Songs at the ends of dramas usually make us feel better. They are part of closure. This song at the end of this movie makes us feel more forlorn. It is not a release, but a twist of Kubrick’s emotional knife. When Truffaut famously said that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, because action argues in favor of itself, he could not have been thinking of “Paths of Glory,” and no wonder: Because of its harsh portrait of the French army, the film was banned in France until 1975.
The film, made in 1957, is typical of Kubrick’s earlier work in being short (84 minutes), tight, told with an economy approaching terseness. Later his films would expand in length and epic scope, sometimes to their advantage, sometimes not. It does however contain examples of one of his favorite visual strategies, the extended camera movement that unfolds to reveal details of a set or location, and continues long after we expect it to be over.
Early in the film, the camera precedes its hero, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) on an inspection tour of a muddy fortified trench that goes on and on and on. Later the camera follows doomed men into No Man’s Land, tracking alongside them through mud and shell blasts, trenches and craters, past bodies that drop before our eyes. Still later, there is a dolly shot through a formal ball to find a French general. And toward the end, an elaborate military parade for a firing squad, with the camera preceding three condemned men as they walk and walk and walk toward their deaths.
These shots of long duration impress the importance of their subjects upon us: The permanence of trench warfare, the devastation of attack, the hypocrisy of the ruling class, the dread of the condemned men. If some of Kubrick’s later extended shots, including the endless tracking shot down long hotel corridors in “The Shining” (1979), seem like exercises in style, the shots in “Paths of Glory” are aimed straight at our emotions.
The story is simply summarized. French and German armies face each other along 500 miles of fortified trenches. Both sides have been dug in for two years. Any attempt at an advance brings a dreadful human cost in lives. The effete little Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his subordinate, Gen. Mireau (George Macready), to take an impregnable German position, “The Anthill,” by, incredibly, the day after tomorrow. Mireau argues that it cannot be done. Broulard thinks perhaps it can be accomplished with no more than 55 percent casualties. He hints that there is a promotion and a third star for the general who does it. The two-star Gen. Mireau goes through the motions of protest: “The lives of 8,000 men! What is my ambition against that? My reputation?” And then: “But, by god, we might just do it!”
Col. Dax must lead the charge. He knows it is doomed, and he protests, but he follows orders. In a scene set the night before the raid, a scene which in other language might have been conceived by Shakespeare, two of his men debate the merits of dying by machinegun or bayonet. One chooses the machinegun, because it is quick; while the bayonet might not kill, it would hurt. The other says that proves he is more afraid of pain than death.
The actual assault has a realism that is convincing even now that we have seen Stone’s “Platoon” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The black-and-white photography is the correct choice; this is a world of shapes and shadows, mud and smoke, not a world for color. The loss of life is devastating. The advance is halted. Watching from the safety of the trenches, Gen. Mireau decides the men are cowards and orders French artillery to fire on their own men, to drive them forward. The battery commander refuses to act without a written order.
At the end of the day, to save face and protect his promotion, Mireau orders that three men, one from each company, must be executed for cowardice. One is chosen by lot. One because he is “socially undesirable.” One because he was an eyewitness to the cowardice of a superior officer, who abandoned a comrade on a reconnaissance mission. Dax is outraged and asks to act as defense counsel before the military tribunal, which is, as we expect, a farce. When Dax argues for the defense that any further advance was “impossible,” the prosecutor snaps, “if it was impossible, the only proof of that would be their dead bodies at the bottom of the trenches.” The survivors are obviously cowards, then, because they are alive.
That night, the condemned men share the same cell. “Do you see that cockroach?” one says. “Tomorrow morning I’ll be dead, and it will be alive.” The film until this point has been bitter and unromantic, but we think we glimpse a turn in the plot. Dax learns of Mireau’s order to fire French artillery at French troops. He finds Gen. Broulard at a fancy ball and informs him of Mireau’s artillery order. In any conventional war movie, in a film made by 99 directors out of 100, there would be an 11th-hour reprieve, the condemned men would be spared, and the stupid and treacherous Mireau would be publicly humiliated.
Not here. Kubrick finds a way to draw all his story threads tight without compromising his harsh and unforgiving theme. The plot is resolved, yes, but cruelty and duplicity survive, and private soldiers are still meaningless pawns. Broulard believes the executions will be “a perfect tonic” for the army: “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”
“Paths of Glory” was the film by which Stanley Kubrick entered the ranks of great directors, never to leave them. When I interviewed Kirk Douglas in 1969, he recalled it as the summit of his acting career: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.” It has an economy of expression that is almost brutal; it is one of the few narrative films in which you sense the anger in the telling. Samuel Fuller, who fought all the way through World War II, remembered it in “The Big Red One” with nostalgia for the camaraderie of his outfit. There is no nostalgia in “Paths of Glory.” Only nightmare.
Kubrick and his cinematographer, George Krause, use sharp and deep focus for every shot. There is not a single shot composed only for beauty; the movie’s visual style is to look, and look hard. Kirk Douglas, a star whose intelligence and ambition sometimes pulled him away from the comfortable path mapped by the system, contains most of the emotion of his character. When he is angry, we know it, but he stays just within the edge of going too far. He remains an officer. He does his duty. He finds a way to define his duty more deeply than his superiors would have wished, but in a way, they cannot condemn.
And then that final song. It is sung by a young actress named Christiane Harlan, who soon after married Stanley Kubrick. One day in the summer of 2000, I visited her on their farm outside London, and we walked through the garden to the boulder engraved with Kubrick’s name, under which he rests. I wanted to tell her how special and powerful that scene was, how it came out of nowhere to provide a heartbreaking coda, how by cutting away from his main story Kubrick cut right into the heart of it. But it didn’t seem like the moment for film criticism, and I was sure she already knew whatever I could tell her.
A restored print of “Paths of Glory” opened Friday at the Music Box. Also read my 1969 Esquire interview with Kirk Douglas, and Great Movie reviews of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” and Fuller’s “The Big Red One.”
Stanley Kubrick—an appreciation
By Marty Jonas, wsws.org
Stanley Kubrick, who died of a heart attack outside London on March 7 at the age of 70, was one of the outstanding film directors of his generation. A perfectionist, his output was very low compared with others in the industry–in 39 years he made only 13 films, 6 of those in the last 35 years. But what he made was influential, unique and uniformly excellent. Kubrick was independent-minded and unbeholden to any studio or media conglomerate.
27 March 1999
Born in New York City in 1928, the son of a doctor, Kubrick became interested in photography after his father gave him a Graflex for his birthday. Before he was out of high school he had sold his first picture to the now-defunct Lookmagazine. Soon afterward, he was hired onto the staff of the publication and was one of its leading photographers. He spent a good deal of his extra time playing chess (a lifelong passion) at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs and (because he was determined to become a filmmaker) seeing classic films at the Museum of Modern Art. Kubrick felt that he could make better films than the ones coming out of Hollywood, and he set out to do just that.
Making three short documentaries–which, at best, broke even–whetted Kubrick’s appetite for directing features. In 1953 he quit his post at Look, enlisted the artistic and technical help of friends, and with $9,000 borrowed from relatives and friends made his first film, Fear and Desire, an abstract piece about war. Though it was not seen widely, it received generally good reviews, encouraging Kubrick to go on to his next project. On a far grander budget of $40,000, again gathered from family and friends, he directed a well-made thriller, Killer’s Kiss, in 1955. It also got a respectable critical reception, and led to his first film with a professional cast and crew, The Killing (1956), a superior effort about a heist at a race track.
His next film, Paths of Glory (1957), ranks among the best antiwar films. Set in France in World War I, it shows the class gulf between the common fighting soldier and the military elite who come from the upper classes and dictate life-and-death orders far from the battlefield. The dandified, incompetent generals give orders from their splendid headquarters to take a hill–an impossible, suicidal task. When the maneuver fails, the brass decide to set an example by having several men selected for the firing squad. Kirk Douglas plays an army captain who tries unsuccessfully to intercede for his men. The film–adapted from a novel that was itself based on an actual World War I incident–is a gripping, concrete portrayal of the class system at work. Kubrick’s concern for the doomed soldiers and the emotional range of the scenes leading up to the execution give the lie to those critics who have always carped about the director’s “lack of humanity.”
Kirk Douglas was impressed with Kubrick and brought him on as director of Spartacus, which Douglas starred in and produced. Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann, who had already shot the beginning and several scenes. Though a cut above the usual big-budget historical films, and with a worthy subject–the massive slave revolt in ancient Rome–it still suffered from the bloatedness and heroics of most Hollywood epics. Kubrick described himself as a “hired hand,” and had major differences with Douglas. It was not a happy time creatively for him.
But Spartacus showed the studios that Kubrick could be a responsible Hollywood director, and, conversely, demonstrated to Kubrick that his place was not in Hollywood. His disillusionment with the studio system brought him to England, where he made Lolita (1962) and settled for the rest of his life.
Taken from the great novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is the story of a cultivated European’s pursuit of a seductive 14-year-old American girl (she was 12 in the novel). The movie features masterful performances by James Mason as Humbert Humbert, and Peter Sellers as his chameleon-like nemesis Claire Quilty. Sue Lyon, a newcomer, played Lolita, and Shelley Winters hilariously portrayed her pretentious mother. Nabokov wrote the screenplay, but Kubrick used only 20 percent of it. It was a film about obsession, about the American landscape, and about European culture being conquered by American vulgarity. Lolita introduced us to Kubrick’s sly humor. It also began his fascination with language (a major concern of the novel and the film) and with sound.
Kubrick’s next film was to have a great impact on the public perception of nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) remains one of the most effective satires ever produced–in any medium. In the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, he shows, with the darkest humor, a world headed inexorably toward annihilation. Kubrick took a straightforward, non-satirical novel, Red Alert, and turned it upside down, making it his own (as he did all of his sources). Though an often heavy-handed black comedy peopled by characters with improbable names like General Jack D. Ripper and President Merkin Muffley in farcical situations, it made the prospect of nuclear war fearful and real–breaking through the complacency and untruths sown by the US government.
Kubrick then embarked on a project called Journey Beyond the Stars. Over a period of five years this turned into 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which I consider the centerpiece of his career. His collaborator was scientist and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Public interest in space travel was at its height. With both the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in what was called the “space race,” the planets seemed within reach. Kubrick, always the enthusiast, was excited by the science and technology of space exploration, becoming an expert on astronomy, computers, rocketry, and everything else that would figure in the film.
The importance of 2001 is that it was the first science-fiction film to be a film of ideas; it came from the sizable stream of science fiction (represented especially in England by writers such as H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Clarke himself) that was a literature of ideas. Granted, the ideas in the film are idealist to the core, under a veneer of hard science, but they are serious ideas nonetheless. Kubrick and Clarke show the evolution of the human species being spurred and observed by an outside, alien force–represented by the inert, black, slab-like monoliths that appear at critical points. The final stage of this development of the species is pure energy and thought, represented by the embryonic space-child observing the Earth and the universe at the film’s end. Perhaps the space-child itself will now be the agent of evolution. (This is a theme first put forward by Clarke in his earlier novel Childhood’s End.)
Much of the film was deliberately left vague; Kubrick said at various times that 2001 was not made to be understood on a first or second viewing, that the filmgoer was free to fill in the gaps of understanding. As he remarked in a 1968 Playboy magazine interview, “I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content … to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation.” So, in a way, this is an Anglo-American Last Year at Marienbad.
Kubrick poured whatever was then available in special effects into the film. State-of-the-art then meant optical and mechanical special effects, with miniature models, actors suspended from wires, and lots of painstaking work on animation stands and in film labs; there was no computerized animation. And even after 30 years, the effects in 2001 are flawless and totally convincing. Unfortunately, this high-water mark in science fiction films was attained afterward only in the area of special effects; the science fiction film of ideas–with a handful of exceptions–was replaced by empty films of action and violence with science fiction trappings and dazzling special effects.
Besides its visual beauty, 2001 is remarkable in its use of sound. Kubrick originally commissioned a score from film composer Alex North, then scrapped it for the classical works by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Gyorgi Ligeti, and Aram Khatchaturian. The blend of image and music is perfect. After seeing 2001, who can hear Thus Spake Zarathustra without visualizing the Dawn of Man sequence, or listen to The Blue Danube Waltz and not see the space shuttle and the circular space platform do their waltz in space? Besides mastering the use of sound, Kubrick also mastered silence. The bulk of 2001 has no dialogue, and much of the film’s soundtrack consists of breathing in spacesuits, dead silence, and silence broken by mysterious far-off voices and delicate sounds. Indeed, this film was perhaps the first and the last to show that in space there is absolute silence; every science fiction picture since has had vast explosions in the vacuum of space accompanied by ear-splitting sound–a scientific impossibility.
And finally, I must mention what is perhaps the finest feat of film editing since Eisenstein’s Potemkin: when the man-ape having discovered tools, exuberantly throws the animal bone it has used as a weapon into the air and it seems (through an amazing cut) to turn into the space shuttle heading toward the space station. One tool is transformed, millions of years later, into another.
Kubrick next made A Clockwork Orange (1971), adapted from the Anthony Burgess novel. Alex, a teenager in near-future London, routinely commits acts of unspeakable “ultraviolence,” but he finally goes too far, is imprisoned, and subjected to a brutal form of aversion therapy, the “Ludovico Treatment.” He ends up completely pacified, but has become a passive citizen, unable to either attack anyone or defend himself. And along with losing his propensity for violence, he has also lost his ability to listen to Beethoven (his peculiar appreciation for the composer was tied in to his love for kicking in people’s heads).
A Clockwork Orange is thoroughly nasty and mean-spirited. Every character is despicable–except for the horrible Alex. He is the only fully realized character, and we are made to feel sorry that he has lost his ability to feel along with his ability to hurt and feel pity for his emotionally crippled state. The film deliberately presents us with a moral dilemma, and we are uneasy.
But what the film has going for it are Kubrick’s cinematic acuity, his choice of music, and his fascination with language. Music by Beethoven and the electronic music composer Wendy Carlos play against the director’s powerful images. (And there is a nefarious use of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”) For reasons unexplained, Alex and his “droogs” speak a patois comprising Cockney, Gypsy and Russian in a run-down welfare-state England–which surely appealed to Kubrick’s interest in language.
In 1975 Kubrick released Barry Lyndon, probably his most underrated film. Taken from a novel by Thackeray, it stars Ryan O’Neal in the best role of his spotty career. He plays a charming lower-class lout in eighteenth century England who marries into royalty, treats all around him miserably, then finally gets his comeuppance and lands at the bottom again. It is an exquisite film, for which Kubrick and his cinematographer John Alcott invented lenses and processes that would allow them to shoot by natural light indoors, often by candlelight. The pastoral outdoor scenes resemble the landscape painting of the British artist John Constable. Again Kubrick blended sound and picture perfectly, this time with music by Bach, Handel, Schubert and others.
For The Shining (1980), Kubrick based his screenplay on Stephen King’s bestselling horror novel. Of course he made many changes, and the film ended up being more Kubrick than King. Where the book was mainly supernatural, the film was ambiguous: the disaster visiting the family at the snowed-in Overlook Hotel could be mental deterioration or it could be the hotel possessing its guests–as with 2001, much is left to the viewer. (King, in fact was so dissatisfied with the film that in 1998 he finally produced his own TV miniseries based on the book; it was far more faithful to the source, but it was also much inferior to Kubrick’s film.) Kubrick again used Wendy Carlos for the score, and Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and young Danny Lloyd gave stunning performances as the imperiled family. The mundane phrase “Honey, I’m home!,” put in the mouth of the ax-wielding husband, is as memorable as the line “You can’t fight in here–this is the War Room!” in Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick’s next film, in 1987, Full Metal Jacket, was a disappointment. It is set during the Vietnam War (though it was shot entirely in England), and its first half has some of the most harrowing combat training scenes ever put on film. Much of this is due to the presence of R. Lee Ermey, a real-life Marine drill instructor discovered by Kubrick. But the second half of the film is diffuse, and the antiwar thrust is hardly as strong as it was in Paths of Glory.
When Kubrick died he had finished shooting his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, and (we are told by the producers) had edited it into shape for release. He worked in secret, so the little information that has been leaked out indicates that this is a film about sexual intrigue, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Stanley Kubrick’s death removes one of the last maverick filmmakers, an artist who created on his own terms. Despite the tribute to him at this year’s Academy Awards, his kind of filmmaking was the opposite of the mediocre, compromised products represented by the Oscars. He was one of the few to be in complete control of his works from beginning to end–and sometimes even after that, as when he (without any movie executive requesting it) cut 19 minutes from 2001 a couple of days after its release. Like Orson Welles and a few others, his filmmaking was total: he immersed himself in the process and was in charge of every detail, including advertising. Unlike most of today’s filmmakers, who only know about other films and TV, and who only read those books that can become film properties, Kubrick was very well read in many areas of literature and the sciences, and his interest in music was wide-ranging. He was unique in that he did not come out of a film school, or from TV or the theater, or from the ranks of the movie industry–he was an independent artist who decided early on to make films.
Wendy Carlos, musical collaborator on two of his films, summed up the importance and uniqueness of Kubrick the day after his death: “After all, creative perfectionists have become nearly an anathema as the centuries increment. So much of what we are asked to read, to hear, to look at, even to eat, seems the result of expedience, a matter of pure commerce. Intelligence, even touches of genius (as he had ample times) have become quaint relics of an earlier age. Our loss, more than you might think.”