Oh, the Humanity!: (In)humanity of War in Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY

18 May 2014

In 1957, Stanley Kubrick made Paths of Glory, an anti-war film which takes place during World War I.  Yes, the war captured in the film follows French soldiers fighting Germans; however, the real war in this film is over power, morality, and reputation within the French army.  Paths of Glory does not show the French killing Germans; Paths of Glory shows the French killing French.  Essentially, the film argues that war lacks humanity, and therefore claims war is a paradox of humans trapped in an inhumane circumstance.

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In making this argument, Kubrick, as always, is very clever.  For example, literally, the soldiers in Paths of Glory are always trapped; they are trapped in trenches.  This literal enclosure represents the soldiers’ figurative entrapment in the circumstance of war.

Furthermore, one of the most gripping scenes that communicates Kubrick’s claim that there is no humanity in war is also one of the most cinematically impressive scenes: Dax’s charge toward the German-held “Anthill.”  The scene opens from Dax’s perspective, as he walks through the trenches, which are lined with soldiers, armed and ready.

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Kubrick eventually cuts away from this perspective, then capturing Dax (Kurt Douglas) walking through the trenches, en route to lead his charge.  Importantly, the trench is under heavy German fire; gun shots, bombs, grenades, and blazing wind sound, but no words are spoken.  Plumes of smoke hang in the air and eruptions of dirt and rock explode.  Dax arrives at a ladder and a soldier counts down from fifteen.  When the countdown is complete, Dax’s whistle sounds.  The charge begins.

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Yelling soldiers pull themselves from the trenches running at the “Anthill”: yelling in fear, yelling in excitement, and yelling in death.  These yells are added to the continuing gunfire, explosions, wind, and Dax’s whistle.  The smoke still hangs and the earth still explodes in battle, forming giant craters in the land, through which the soldiers must run as they race toward the “Anthill.”  Still, no words are spoken.  Men fall in death.  Dax pushes on.  The camera mostly stays with Dax, but cuts from time to time to catch another soldier’s struggle or untimely demise.  In all, Dax’s charge for the “Anthill” is, roughly, a five minute scene in the film; a scene without words, but full off carnage.

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First, in this scene Kubrick relies on pathos and uses first-person perspective.  Kubrick is not going to let the audience get away with simply watching the massacre; the audience will have to be a character in the charge; the audience, at first, is Dax.  This is an unsafe, horrifying position to be in, as the audience already knows this charge will undoubtedly be a failure. As Kubrick builds his film’s argument that war is humans trapped in an inhumane circumstance, Kubrick incorporates pathos to engage the audience during this scene.

Interestingly, Kubrick creates an unearthly scene as Dax and his troops charge for the “Anthill,” literally.  The cratered, exploding, smoky terrain Dax runs through toward the Germans looks more like a foreign plant than it does Earth.  The way grenades, bombs, and cannons fall on the land looks almost like muddy geysers releasing ash and stream.  It is as though the land, a live landmine field, is detonating uncontrollably.  The pools of water and blood that form in many of the craters’ centers look like pods of marshes littering this otherworldly setting. Kubrick not only puts the audience into the film using first person point of view, appealing to pathos, but also creates a setting that is nearly unrecognizable and almost certainly unable to be survived by humans.  In Paths of Glory, war creates an environment that is not of this world, and so Kubrick creates a sci-fi-like setting for his film’s battle scene.

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Also, this sequence focuses on diegetic sound, but Kubrick makes Dax and his men voiceless.  Dax has replaced his voice with a whistle, blowing the same monotonous, high-pitched sound again and again; a sound that has no actual meaning.  The men, not using words, collectively scream.  As previously stated, they are not yelling for a reason; they are yelling for every reason.  And, there is no way to differentiate one man’s scream from another.  In reading this scene on the slant that Kubrick’s argument in Paths of Glory is war has no humanity although it is fought by humans, there are no words in war; Kubrick uses hundreds of men in, arguably, one of the most powerful five-minute sequences of his 90 minute feature, yet through all the bombastically diegetic sound, there is no language.

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By using first-person perspective, Kubrick forces viewers into the war, and by taking away Earth and taking away voices, Kubrick captures how inhuman war actually is.  According to the film, even though war is created by humans, it is an impossible circumstance for humans.  It creates and unlivable environment, evident by the unearthly setting Kubrick creates in this scene. And, there is no language for war or effective communication for humans to use in war, evident in Kubrick’s removal of voice during the charge toward the “Anthill.”

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 18/05/2014.

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