Strong Early Kubrick Anti-War Film, 4 July 2010
Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I watched this, some 53 years before it was made, without knowing anything about it. It transpires that this was a huge advantage in making an objective assessment of a film which has historically divided opinion. The context is important. Made in 1957, it was part of the double feature era when people went to the cinema to see two films, both under 90 minutes. The demand was that a full story be told in that time meaning that far more storytelling ground was often covered then than in modern day films. Certainly here, a longer running time or reduced content would have been a benefit.
It was also made forty years after the end of the First World War in which the film is set. The mass slaughter was being objectively assessed against a backdrop of a “just” second world war, and a futile Korean War which had ended where it started, but at a cost of a million miles. Although essentially an anti-war film , it does not succeed in having universal sentiments which transcend the time.
The first awkwardness is that although the story is set in French lines, a stoutly English and American cast speak and act English. There is always a debate to be had about sub titles, but here the problem is greater than that. Virtually no attempt is made to make the characters, and their setting, feel French. This is so acute that on occasion it is easy to forget whether we are in French, British or America lines.
George Macready is good and well cast as General Mireau, but a donkey leading lions. Yet the opening act offers a crude short hand of a venal, incompetent self-seeking command prepared to sacrifice their men for personal advancement. Kirk Douglas then appears as a more junior commander, Colenel Dax who is cajoled into undertaking an impossible assault on German lines. Dax’s lines have no French reference at all, they are the words of an American Hero juxtaposed against a seemingly corrupt, ineffective French Military hierarchy, a narrative which would probably have played well at the time.
The battle scene itself is well handled and convincing as the French launch an attack which is beaten back by the German positions. Yet the pivotal moment when x orders his gunners to fire on their own positions as troops refuse to leave their trenches under withering fire is crassly handled, and a little naive. The tradition of men refusing to follow orders facing death by their own side dates back at least to Roman times and was well practised in the first and second world wars by the Russians and Germans. Absolute obedience to orders IS a military imperative, yet instead we are invited to sympathise with those men who cowered in their trenches letting down those of their comrades who DID follow orders. The artillery officer refuses the order.
Mireau orders that a body of men are summarily shot in the interests of discipline, and Dax, a qualified lawyer, provides his services in defence of the three accused. This act is undoubtedly the strongest as the folly of war is forensically dissected, transcending the moment. But then it falters again as Mireau is threatened with exposure by y for ordering French Artillery to shell their own lines to the Press. The reality is that there was no mass French Press then, the press that did exist was strictly establishment, and there was no chance that the story would have found its way into the paper. Late 1950’s mores of American Press practises is superimposed wrongly in time and place.
The summary execution of the token “Cowards” is grandly set, and poignantly portrayed and perhaps the story should have ended there. But instead there is a denouement ( the only thing French about this film!) where Dax’s soldiers take some rest and recreation to be entertained by a captured young German woman, later to be Mrs Kubrick in real life. Initially there is a suggestion that she will be gang –raped, but then she sings and unifies then all in a cloying, sentimental ending at odds with the ambitions of the film , but wholly consistent with a commercially acceptable close.
The story is well told, and well acted, and is satisfying with numerous hints of the greatness to come. Its shortcomings, as only Kubrick’s second feature are wholly excusable. But the madness of war is more completely explored in “Dr Strangelove”, it’s visceral side more effectively explored in “Full Metal Jacket” so this is no masterpiece, but a strong part of the Kubrick canon nonetheless.