‘Mind the steppe…’ (3)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/95/Saigon-hubert-van-es.jpg The other week, I uploaded a posting that not only touched upon Stanley Kubrick’s attempt to say something honest and sane in connection with the Vietnam War, but also made reference to John Wayne’s highly successful project to make a Vietnam War film that never approached honesty or sanity at any point. And, as you may have seen, I had two public responses — one relating to Kubrick’s work, and one about the John Wayne film. Let me respond to the Kubrick one here: Mr Wayne will just have to wait in line like all the other lackeys…

The ‘Comment’ concerned came from my net-buddy Daniel Margrain — and it began as follows:

An often underrated Kubrick masterpiece which was the first to showcase his innovative camera-panning and visual flair was his 1957 film ‘Paths of Glory’, which in my view, is the greatest cinematic depiction of the barbarity of war ever made. The influence Kubrick’s style has had on contemporary film-makers is clear.

https://i2.wp.com/www.filmsite.org/posters/path3.jpgNow, I know Daniel Margrain to be a thoughtful fellow (have a look at one of his blog postings, if you want to know why I say that); and I can certainly understand his regard for the intense and tragic Paths of Glory (which, as my eventual biographers will no doubt wish to learn, I’ve known and respected since late 1985).

The thing is, though, that much as I would prefer to simply let Daniel’s applausive ‘Comment’ stand, there is something that I can’t quite stop myself saying in response (yes, I’ve tried). You see, while my own regard for Paths of Glory is such that I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone who hasn’t seen it should go and watch it as soon as possible (and there’s an online bootleg here, if you are interested), the fact remains that there is one part of it about which I have been more or less continuously annoyed for 30 years…

https://markdoran.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/e89a7-kirk2band2bson.jpg?w=300&h=211[[Insert: Yes, I really do recommend the film: not only is it a very powerful drama (and loosely based on fact, I gather), but it also contains a terrific performance by Kirk Douglas — a year before The Vikings, and three years before Spartacus. Incidentally, the retired Mr Douglas is currently 99 years old — and an occasional blogger as well as a philanthropist! —  and he gets nothing but the warmest wishes from me and from every reader of this blog: all the best to you, Mr Douglas, if you happen to see this!]]

All right, let me introduce the bit I mean. It’s a large-scale ‘attacking infantry’ set-piece that constitutes one of the most celebrated scenes in the film — and when I say ‘celebrated’, I mean it. Here’s what Roger Ebert was saying about it, decades after it was made:

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.

[Full text here]

And here is a longer encomium that I’ve just picked up from another prominent film site:

In a stunning, choreographed, ten-minute sequence photographed from medium and long-shot views with incredible tracking shots from the side, the troops sweep out across the pockmarked lunar-like landscape, littered with muddy gullies, bomb craters, bodies, debris, shell holes and barbed wire, as the barrage continues to roar. They follow Dax, pitifully blowing the whistle and waving a pistol in his hand, leading his men toward the enemy position. As the men run, stoop, stumble, and crawl during the attack, stumbling over the corpses of comrades, reactions to the disastrous attack are recorded on their faces. Men fall as German machine guns cut them down on all sides. Thousands of them are slaughtered in no man’s land before they even reach the halfway point or beyond their own defenses. Dax continues to run on during the intense attack across the smoky landscape. The French wounded and dead pile up, and the air is filled with the wails and moans of defeated, agonized, injured voices. The German fortress is impregnable as expected.

[Full text here]

Okay. Now here’s a large segment of the sequence in question. Watch it first, and then I’ll explain what it is that I mean when I say that I have a very big, very bleached bone to pick with Mr Kubrick about it…

Right, here’s my beef. In spite of all the obvious care and mastery that has gone into the creation of that scene, there are two aspects to it which I myself have to consider pretty unforgivable.

The first is that there are just too damn many beautiful corpses; the second — obviously related to the first — is that the ‘artillery bombardment’ through which the soldiers run is depicted as being so close to utterly harmless that one is left with the impression of WW1 as a conflict in which a shell practically had to land on someone’s foot in order to do them any kind of injury.

I want to rub in both of those points, so here are a few facts — in the form of some pretty horrible war photography. (Sensitive readers may wish to stop reading at this point: I’ll understand perfectly if they do.)

Here is a nice picture of some cats. Don’t scroll down beyond it unless you really, really want to.  I mean it.


So here we go. The majority of the casualties in World War 1 were killed and injured by high explosive — by the blast and the shrapnel from shells and grenades…

It was shells and grenades that severed hands from arms…

ww1handIt was shells and grenades that ripped limbs from torsos…

ww1torsoAnd it was shells and grenades that smashed skulls into ragged clumps of bone and tissue…

ww1bodiesIf anyone is still reading and wants to see some indication of what a genuine WW1 artillery bombardment looked and felt like, I can offer this piece of archive film which not only shows the horrific violence and power of a shell detonation — even when the shell sank into soft mud before exploding — but also lets us see a group of soldiers running like mad to get out of the area…

Anyone who has pondered both the severed hand in my first photo and the moment in Kubrick’s film where his mastery (or that of his Second Unit) failed him to the extent that we see a stupidly unconvincing mannequin being blown up may like to know that as long ago as 1930 both kinds of image had been successfully, powerfully embraced within what one might call a ‘first generation’ war film. And here’s a clip to prove it:

As it happens, I’m the first to acknowledge that works of artistic communication (if we can informally agree that we’re dealing with such things here) can’t usually be compared all that meaningfully; but even with that in mind, I have to say that if the evocation of violence, horror, futility and waste was part of Kubrick’s agenda in 1957, it’s hard not to feel that he was actually outclassed in both force and truthfulness by Lewis Milestone back in 1930 — and all of that despite the fact that the latter was working with distinctly primitive technology (especially as far as sound mixing was concerned). Yet, even so, those two supposedly knowledgeable critics whom I quoted earlier can be seen to credit Kubrick’s sequence with all manner of powerful contents and characteristics that aren’t really there. Ebert, for example, says that the assault “has a realism that is convincing even now that we have seen Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’.”

Not so. And if Saving Private Ryan is going to be mentioned in this context, let me shyly point out that for us to be anywhere near the level of that outstanding attempt to create a representation of industrial-scale slaughter that acknowledges throughout the realities of concrete corporeality, Kubrick’s scene would have had to look a lot more like this…

Which brings me back to what I said earlier about all the ‘beautiful corpses’ in Paths of Glory. In Kubrick’s scene, every few seconds we merely see one or other ‘extra’ dropping obediently to the ground with the kind of ‘Bang! You’re dead!’ casualness that every reader will remember from primary school…

Now, I’m aware that all this raises an issue that requires one to think and feel pretty intelligently, so let me stress that I don’t ‘like’ blood and gore in films, nor would I feel comfortable saying anything that sounded like I was ‘sad’ not to see a battle scene gingered up with eruptions of red paint and the latest computer-generated ‘special effects’. In fact, to me there is no clearer image of the irreducible sickness at the heart of the ‘war film’ tradition than the thought of a director calling out “More blood on those babies! That’s right! And make sure it looks like the bayonet goes right in! There we are! Now, let’s go for a take!” And I’m also aware that for a director’s WW1 battle scene even to acknowledge in passing such hauntingly horrific truths as the fact that a splinter from an artillery shell might remove half of a man’s face and yet leave him still alive would be to introduce an element whose heart-stopping awfulness would simply dwarf whatever central themes the drama was actually intending to explore…


At the same time, however, it surely must be acknowledged that creating a ‘battle’ which presents each on-screen fatality with drawing-room tastefulness — every death effectively de-physicalised by way of a luxurious respect for corporeal integrity — places your supposedly ‘hard-hitting’ scene within striking distance of all those propaganda cards and posters that depict ‘war’ as a clean and manly enterprise almost all of whose heroic participants can be expected home by December 25. It’s a vicious, evil lie, and I hate it — all the more so when it’s given substance and legitimacy by someone of Kubrick’s stature.

Anyway, that’s the end of my moan. If anyone wants me to finish with discussion of something Kubrick does in this scene that is actually of expressive interest, let me briefly switch to a topic that professional film makers are in fact much preoccupied with — the question of whether a scene (especially one with tracking shots) involves overall movement from left to right, or from right to left.

In Kubrick’s scene, once the French soldiers leave the trench (which has been shown with a very Kubrick-like concern for left-right symmetry!) they are seen to be attacking the Germans from the right of the screen: they are advancing from right to left, and the camera tracks with them. It so happens that film theory and tradition (and the odd bit of experimental psychology, too) conceive the most ‘natural’ and ‘positively energetic’ kind of movement (at least in our culture) as being that which goes the other way, i.e. from left to right. Left-to-right movement, in short, is regarded as seeming somewhat ‘easier’ than right-to-left — which is no doubt one of the reasons (there may have been others, of course) why Kubrick opted for the latter in representing his doomed, blocked, essentially suicidal and dramatically initiatory infantry assault. If you watch a lot of films, you may find it fun to keep a notebook by your chair — so that you can jot down which movement-based scenes move in which direction… (Incidentally, anyone who wants to see the scene the other way round — i.e. going from left to right — can watch this.)

Here’s one to start your collection off — also by Kubrick, and actually from the very end of a film. (Note for parents: adult language alert.)

Interestingly — to me, at any rate — something else in the Paths of Glory scene that has been on my mind these 30 years is the way the scene’s right-to-left movement actually makes me feel that the French must be attacking East-to-West — which has always made the scene feel slightly odd to me, as Germany is of course further East than France and attacked and occupied Belgium and Northern France from that direction…

No, I’m not going to moan about it. I might, however, decide to moan about the following.

To my mind, Kubrick showed profound sense in not corrupting the would-be ‘documentary’ feel of his battle scene with anything so potentially crass and manipulative as non-diegetic, ‘background’ music. Which hasn’t stopped at least one individual from rushing in and having a go…

Yes, there are things to be learned from this attempt (one can learn something from anything, provided one knows how to look). But if you know of any other ex-post-facto film-musical intervention that shows this level of sheer giftlessness, then just keep it to yourself, eh…?


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