Kirk Douglas stars as French army Colonel Dax in this next film recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Kubrick brings his inimitable style to bear on the Great War in this film that tells the tale of a failed attempt to break the German lines on a site called the Ant Hill, and the repercussions of that failure. His clinical and fluid camera work, attention to every detail, and shot composition bring an objective eye to trench warfare where victories are judged in yards gained and lives sacrificed.
Sharp clean uniforms of the higher ranks are juxtaposed with the tattered and bloodied wounded that pass around them ignored by their higher-ups. The fighting men are all bruised, bloodied, battered and tired, the generals are rested, pressed and parade ground ready.
When confronted by General Mireau (George Macready) about the upcoming assault, appealing to his sense of patriotism, Dax replies with this singularly brilliant line, “I’m not a bull general, I don’t need a flag waved in front of me to get me to charge.”
Dax doesn’t want the assignment and argues against it, as over half his men may be lost. But orders are orders and he leads the charge himself. However, when errors began to occur General Mireau orders artillery fire on his own battalions to drive them forward! Dax does his best but the men fall back under massive casualties.
Mireau demands a court-martial for the 701st, for cowardice, in the failed assault. Dax goes so far as to offers himself up instead of the 100 men Mireau wants shot. The general ‘compromises’ and orders three men. one from each division in the first wave, to stand for the court-martial, the charge: cowardice in the face of the enemy, with Dax serving as their defense.
Mireau, despite his facial scar, is nothing but a stuffed shirt and has little respect or understanding of the things at work in the trenches. He is simply concerned with the image presented to the country at large. Even during the trial, which is nothing more than a show, he separates himself from the men. He languishes on a luxurious couch, watching the proceedings as three soldiers are tried.
There’s Ferol (Timothy Carey), a social undesirable, Arnaud (Joe Turkel), a highly decorated soldier who was selected by lot, and Paris (Ralph Meeker), who was chosen because of the rather difficult relationship he has with his immediate superior. The verdict, and sentence are a foregone conclusion, and Dax’s job as defense, consequently, is impossible.
The anti-war themes, alongside those of patriotism, image, class and honor intermingle with each other through the course of the film, leaving the viewer to wonder if those things can exist on the front lines. The final scene suggests a humanity beyond nationalism a connection with others even when we don’t speak the same language – our similarities are more important than our differences.
It’s a fantastic film, and a Kubrick piece I hadn’t seen before. I liked this one a lot!