Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Verdun Project: "Paths of Glory" (1957)

“Paths of Glory” is one of those few films that you can come back to at different times in your life and find someting new, again and again. As part of my current interest in the French Army of the Great War, and the battle of Verdun in particular, I got hold of a very reasonably copy on DVD and watched it a couple of weekends ago.


Although I’ve not seen the film for at least ten years, it remains evergreen. Directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1957, the storyline is straightforward. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas in rarely-better mode), commanding officer of the French 701st Regiment, is tasked with an impossible assault on German lines at a fortified position known as “The Anthill”. The attack is a failure, and as a consequence Colonel Dax’s commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau, determines that a number of French soldiers should be Court Martialed for cowardice. The number of private soldiers to be accused of cowardice is reduced to three, chosen by random lot. The soldiers stand trial and are defended by Colonel Dax. The trial is a foregone conclusion. The accused soldiers are sentenced to death. 


Within the story are numerous wonderful vignettes. Coming back to these after not seeing the film for a long time is a great experience. I loved the opening dialogue between the two French generals, Broulard of the General Staff and his subordinate Mireau. General Mireau turns from originally declining the task to assault “The Anthill”, only to accept the mission once a promotion is dangled tantalizingly before him. The scenes with the soldiers facing court-martial, and their time after a verdict is delivered, are moving and carefully judged. Colonel Dax is unable to prevent the judgment of the Court being carried out, his helplessness a metaphor for the vulnerability of humanity in war.

I’d strongly recommend the film for anyone interested in the Great War, or films in general. Far more knowledgeable people than me have written extensively about the film, and an excellent entry in IMDB is available here



But what’s in the film for a wargamer? I think there’s quite a bit.

The attack on "The Anthill" is excellently staged. Over a ton of explosives were used in staging the battle in the first week of filming, and the scenes of the attack have the verisimilitude of an attack over No Man’s Land, with a wrecked battlefield, an indistinct (but clearly formidable) German fortification and attacking French troops being cut down without even seeing their German opponents. From my reading of conditions at Verdun, and on the Chemin Des Dames in April 1917, the battle conditions sound grimly realistic.


The scenes of General Broulard and General Mireau in the ubiquitous ‘chateau behind the lines’ are clichéd, but can still yield some ideas for wargaming backgrounds. Certainly the dialogue between the two generals is acted with wonderful timing and skill. My understanding from Robert Doughty’s excellent book “Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War” (2008) is that as the war progressed the French General Staff were nowhere near as closeted and isolated from the reality of the front lines as the film suggests. However, the relationships between members of the French General Staff were frequently difficult and fractious. Rivalries existed between and within army formations relating to republican politics, religiosity and clericalism, and approaches to the prosecution of the War. These seem to have reached their height around the Nivelle Offensive in early 1917, although it would also be unfair to single out such difficulties as being exclusively attributable to French commanders and general staff. Adding a theme of command disagreements and rivalry is an enhancement to any wargame at the right level, and players who may have watched “Paths of Glory” in advance of a game might be enthusiastic if this source of additional tension is added into the scenario mix.  I'll be offering some ideas shortly, when I get to the wargaming mechanics part of The Verdun Project.

 
So, an excellent film, very enjoyable and worthwhile on its own terms. An unreserved five star-shells, whether you’re a wargamer or not. 


As a postscript, you may be wondering why the blog posts have gone strangely silent for a few weeks. Nothing amiss, no disasters happening – just a mountain of work in real life, I’m afraid. Hopefully I’ll be blogging more very shortly.

40 comments:

  1. Never seen it and now it is on my 'must buy' list thanks to your post.

    Also - keep an eye on my blog as March is WW1 month and we're doing French vs Germans (5 battles - one per week) in 6mm.

    Phil

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Phil, thanks for your comment, and I shall certainly be watching very closely on your French/German battles. I've got French and German forces lined up in 10mm for Late War, so watching your 6mm engagements will be perfectly timed!

      Delete
  2. PoG is a brilliant film. The last sequence, when Dax watches his men listening to a girl singing before they return to the trenches, is unforgettable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Mike. It is a great film, and yes the final sequence is terrific. When I first saw the final sequence, it seemed just slightly out of place. But when I've re-watched "Paths of Glory", it seems to me that it's absolutely right at the heart of the film.

      Delete
    2. I found it odd at first too. I think it was Kubrick showing and asserting the humanity of these men, that despite being used and discarded by their generals as brutes and cannon fodder, they were still men. Or maybe it's a bit of bleak cynicism by SK, that these men, who should have turned their guns on their generals, were so distractable by a pretty face? I guess it could be argued either way,

      Delete
    3. Thanks Mike. I agree its a striking and ambiguous scene. There is cynicism there, although the lasting feeling I got was that of the bleakness of human tragedy. The veneer of harshness and coarseness of the soldiers is stripped bare and their humanity is clearly revealed, only for the War to continue. The fragility of life and humanity in war is shown, but is then balanced against it being Dax himself who gives the orders for his men to return to the front lines. In a lot of ways, the film seems to be Dax's personal tragedy, as much as it is the tragedy of the executed soldiers before the firing squad.

      Delete
  3. Great post!

    All of Kubrick's "war" movies are memorable & thought provoking pieces of art.

    Paths of glory
    Dr. Strangelove
    Full Metal Jacket

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Star Forge! They are indeed all excellent films, as indeed is almost everything Kubrick did. "Dr. Strangelove" is just cinematic brilliance from start to finish.

      Delete
  4. Amazingly I just watched the crossing of no man's land for the first time last night on YouTube. My conclusion after watching it was twofold: I should have watched this film years ago as it is certainly a dramatic classic, and wow am I glad I never had to go over the top. Forty years old and the visuals still take your breath away.

    I poked around your site a bit and found your modular trench tabletop. Very nice indeed! Given my space constraints I'm limited to modular trench sections, but I sure would like to get a whole tabletop done.

    I can tell I'll be reading quite a bit of your blog in the future...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Nick. I completely agree about the visuals in "Paths of Glory" - all from a pre-CGI era! Good luck with the terrain building. I've taken a winter break on that front until the weather gets better!

      Delete
  5. 'Paths of Glory' is a fabulous piece of cinematic history. Its an especially remarkable and brave film in that it was a) filmed in 1957 (when American John Wayne movies were de rigeur) and b) was directed, produced and acted not by French, not by British, not by any europeans but entirely by Americans. I can't imagine the scratching of heads in Hollywood when this was going into preproduction.

    BTW, the German girl singing nearing the closing sequence was Kubrik's wife, Christiane Kubrik.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great comment Curt. I would only add that it wasn't just Kubrick who was brave, but also Kirk Douglas who did some fearless casting in that period. The year previous he played Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust For Life", and it's hard to imagine a film less likely to go down w Eisenhower-era America than a film about a bonkers painter. I have heard that John Wayne told KD to stop making films about fruits, because he and and Douglas were among the few real men left in Hollywood and they couldn't afford to let the side down. :)

      Delete
    2. Thanks Curt, and Mike - great comments. Curt, you're spot on regarding 1957 - only a short time after McCarthyism, after all. Mike - Kirk Douglas, yes, a terrific actor, and mesmerising in Paths of Glory.

      Delete
  6. Replies
    1. Thanks Monty - I thought you might like it.

      Delete
  7. Learning loads from your blog Sidney, loving your posts.... I'm working on writing a gallipoli scenario based on through the mud and blood rules, could do with picking your brains on a few points.... Would that be ok?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi BadDog, sure, no problem. Ask away.

      Delete
  8. Also couldn't find in your blog where the explanation for cards such as abysmal terrain and comms down were, could you give me a steer please?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The best place is in the TooFatLardies Specials - they have the various rules for the friction-related cards like "Abysmal Ground". I've answered your post in more detail on the TFL Yahoo group this morning - I hope that helps!

      Delete
  9. I don't think I've seen this one before?? I'll check it out!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh Ray, you're missing out. Get yourself a copy - I think you'd enjoy it!

      Delete
  10. Great, great film. I have the DVD at home and your post has put me a spin to watch it again

    Now a story: did you know that it was censored in Spain until General Franco died in 1975 because of the anit-militarism content? I watch it in the early 80s, when it was showed in the theaters for the fiurst time in Spain

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Benito:
      There's another great story about another film, Dr. Zhivago being filmed in Madrid in the 1960s, and how the filmmakers had to plead with the authorities not to punish the extras for singing the Internationale during the riot scene in St. Petersburg. Lots of people knew the song, but no one wanted to sing it and get arrested!

      Delete
    2. Thanks Benito and Mike. Wow, a fantastic piece of personal history Benito - thanks very much for sharing that. Accordingly to Wikipedia (fount of all accurate knowledge and wisdom, of course), the screening of "Paths of Glory" was delayed in France as well, until 1975. I wonder if a wargame based on the film would have been banned as well ?!?

      Delete
  11. I've seen it last week, for a third timme. I love this movie. I must admit that I am a Kubrick fan. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Thanos. Stanley Kubrick was certainly one of the great directors - an incredibly memorable film, which stands well againts his other (great) films.

      Delete
  12. This is one of my favorite war movies for a very long time (over 20 years). It moved me then and still moves me. Excellent choice.

    Sapper

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great post, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I own the movie, but haven't watched it in ages. Tomorrow night seems like a good time to break it out again. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No better time, Jason. No better time....

      Delete
  14. Excellent post and indeed a great film! I certainly think it influenced 'A Few Good Men', albeit the two films aren't really in the same league.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jim - that's a really great comparison. The Court Martial scene must have been an influence for a lot of films like "A Few Good Men", certainly as regards how tension is created. The thing which struck me when re-watching the Court Martial scene is how brief it is, and how Colonel Dax fails utterly in his arguments. That result is different to Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men", or Charles Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution), or Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men - OK, not a court room, but it's related advocacy). But in "Paths of Glory", there's no legal triumph, no impassioned speech which wins the day, no court room twist. The trial is a farce, and the result is a gross injustice. Dax, the "greatest criminal lawyer in France" is helpless at the end of it.

      Delete
  15. I have added it to my Netflix queue as I have not seen it in years. A true test of leadership is being given a hopeless task and doing your best through out. Col Dax does it twice in this film, once at the Anthill, latter in the courtroom.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jon. Yes, that's a good way of looking at the film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I saw it again after a few years.

      Delete
  16. That is a great film, with great actors/acting. A classic which reveals new insights with each viewing as you point out. Verdun - wow, what a huge and lengthy battle, at such a cost in lives. Understand about the "real world" getting in the way of our hobby sometimes. Best, Dean

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dean. Verdun was, and remains, a very unusual battle. The more I read, the more I'm of the view that it's unlike other Great War battles. Unfortunately work has been getting in the way far too much recently! Which is good in some regards, but not from the viewpoint of painting wargames figures!

      Delete
  17. I have not seen this film Sidney but you have just sold it to me. It is a shame it is black and white otherwise we could have compared your French Blue with the film. Look forward to seeing your French collection expand.
    Cheers,
    Pat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pat, I think you'd really enjoy the film. It's something you can watch at least a couple of times and find different things to enjoy in the film. The French are getting there, but my time's been really limited in February. I'm hoping March might be a bit easier work-wise!

      Delete
  18. It's been a while for myself as well but Douglas gives one of his best performances, a truly excellent movie.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...