Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, Stanley Kubrick directed the movie Paths of Glory in 1957. Kirk Douglas plays the role of Colonel Dax, a commander of the French army in World War I. Held in their trenches against the threat of German cannons, the regiment is ordered on a suicidal mission to capture the Germans. When the mission fails, French generals order three soldiers to be tried and executed on the charge of cowardice. Dax is selected defense attorney for the chosen soldiers. Kubrick explores the political planning and selfish personal ambitions that result in battlefield slaughter and irrational executions.
The movie is constant in its disapproval of war and the pleasure-seeking of military leaders who arrange the deaths of thousands from the comfort of their headquarters. In the beginning of the movie, General Mireau verbally ordered artillery fire on his own men because they had not left the trenches to attack the enemy. This order was denied because it was not written and signed by the general himself. Verbal orders cannot be given out for it could be false. With a signed order, proof is seen from the signature.
General Mireau refused to sign the order and instead became very upset. His outrage brought him to the decision to kill three soldiers. A meeting was held between General Broulard, General Mireau and Colonel Dax. General Broulard wanted to execute one-hundred of his own men for cowardice. Of course Colonel Dax disagreed. Therefore, General Broulard brought the number down to a dozen. The result was to choose one man from each regiment and then execute them. There were three regiments so there would be three men randomly picked by their lieutenant.
Colonel Dax then requested that he be chosen as their defense attorney. He also had the responsibility of choosing someone who would be in charge of executing these men if they plead guilty in their trial. I would say that their trial was taken place in a Kangaroo court. Kangaroo court is defined as a self-appointed tribunal that disregards or parodies existing principles of law or human rights. All three men chosen for the execution walked in the court ready to be tried with Colonel Dax as their defense attorney.
The judge, along with everyone else involved, seemed to already have a decision without knowing the character of each man, evidence and what their attorney had to say. The first man who spoke before the court was a guy who admitted he made it out of the trenches and into “no man’s land”. According to him, everyone around him was left dead except for one guy who was still left standing. They both headed back to the trenches so they could stay alive. He mentioned that he probably should have moved forward but instead he retreated.
The second man who spoke before the court admitted that he advanced from the trenches until he was ordered back. All the court cared about was how far he got out of the trench. They didn’t care that he was ordered to retreat. When Colonel Dax mentioned the two medals the second man received over time, they were not interested. Finally, the third man was being tried. When he was climbing out of the trench, he was knocked out “stone cold” because of a corpse that fell on him. The court showed no mercy on any of these men. They were all plead guilty and sentenced to death.
How can a man be a coward if he remained alive while everyone else lay dead? Why would he or any man for that matter continue going forward alone instead of retreating back to save their own life? How is a man a coward if he is doing nothing but obeying orders? What would make a court plead someone guilty of cowardice when that person has a medal in bravery? Why would a court execute a man who never had the chance to leave the trench because he was knocked unconscious by a dead body? All of these questions had to be going through Colonel Dax’s head.
General Mireau asked Colonel Dax the question, “Are you protesting the authenticity of this court? ” He replied with the answer, “Yes sir. I protest against being prevented from introducing evidence which I considered vital to the defense; the prosecution presented no witnesses; there has never been a written indictment of charges made against the defendants, and lastly, I protest against the fact that no stenographic records of this trial have been kept. The attack yesterday morning was no stain of the honor of France, and certainly no disgrace to the fighting men of this nation.
But this Court Martial is such a stain, and such a disgrace. The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice. Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime, to haunt each of you till the day you die. I can’t believe that the noblest impulse for man – his compassion for another – can be completely dead here. Therefore, I humbly beg you… show mercy to these men. ” Later on during the movie, Colonel Dax summons Lieutenant Roget to his quarters and orders the officer the assignment of supervising the firing squad – a job which requires putting a bullet in each prisoners head. You’ve got the job. It’s all yours,” Colonel Dax says. Lieutenant Roget tries to back out and convince Dax he is unfit for the job since he has never done such a task. Dax feels that if Roget had the audacity to pick a soldier of being dead based on the charge of cowardice, he can uphold the responsibility of ending their life. In this scene, Colonel Dax made it a point that Lieutenant Roget made a personal decision with his own reasons instead of picking from random because he was ordered to. Why did Lieutenant Roget choose Cpl. Paris to be executed?
Before the assault, Dax ordered three officers (Lieutenant Roget, Corporal Paris and Private Lejeune) to go on a reconnaissance patrol into the darkness of no-man’s-land. The lieutenant “forfeited” himself, leaving the other two soldiers by themselves just because he was scared. Unfortunately, Private Lejeune did not make it out alive. When Corporate Paris returns back to French lines, he enters Lieutenant’s bunker to talk with him. Roget, shocked to see Paris, says, “I thought you’d been killed. ” “You didn’t wait around to find out, did you Lieutenant?
I mean you ran like a rabbit after you killed Lejeune,” Corporal Paris snaps back. Lieutenant Roget did not appreciate the tone and accusations being pointed at him whatsoever. He clearly lets Paris know that he is an officer and he should never be spoken to like that. Paris continues by saying, “Oh, well, I must be mistaken then, sir. An officer wouldn’t do that. A man wouldn’t do it. Only a thing would – a sneaky, booze-guzzling, yellow-bellied rat with a bottle for a brain and a streak of spit where his spine ought to be. You’ve got yourself into a mess, Lieutenant. Roget cynically expresses his superiority and counter-reprimands him for insubordination, threatening a superior officer, and refusing to obey an order and inciting others to do the same. Paris threatens to bring charges and accuses his superior officer of drunkenness on duty, wanton murder of one of his own men, and cowardice in the face of the enemy. That is why bringing Corporal Paris to execution was personal for Lieutenant Roget. With proof that will hopefully save the three soldiers lives from execution, Dax ask to see General Broulard to report the new information he has just learned.
With disregard to the information, Broulard replies, “Maybe the attack against the Ant Hill was impossible. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been a little more daring, you might have taken it. Who knows? Why should we have to bear more criticism and failure than we have to? These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division. There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die. You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline.
And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then. ” Dax had sworn statements by the men who witnessed General Mireau ordering artillery fire on his own men during the attack. He implies that the execution would not proceed if all the court knew Mireau’s actions to fire on his own men. General Broulard is not justified in holding his position with respect because he had the choice to stop the execution but chose not to. He believes that killing three innocent men shows an example in maintaining discipline. He chose not to stop this for he did not want to look bad upon.
I believe that if he would have stopped the execution like Colonel Dax wanted him too; it would not look bad on Broulard. Full responsibility would have been over General Mireau for poor judgment and the lack of morals. General Mireau made this decision based on his ego and authority. Stanley Kubrick brings in the theme class distinction by making it clear that everyone is afraid. If ranked higher in power, fear can be overlooked in the form of authority. Lower classes were shown to be located in trenches while those better off became Generals and Colonels.
To those in power, other soldiers were chess pieces to their decisions. That is where Kubrick uses the theme nationalism. The cliche “means to an end” is a good example of what General Broulard believed. He believed that if three men getting executed were what it took for the rest of the regiments to follow orders, then that is what it took to be successful in the war. He made decisions on what he believed was best even if it was morally wrong. The execution gave him and General Mireau a superior patriotic feeling, and that is where Colonel Dax conflicted with both Generals.
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