What I watched: Paths of Glory (1957)
How I watched it: library-rented DVD
Synopsis: When his men are accused of cowardice on the front lines, a commanding officer rushes to defend their actions during their court martial.
Why I watched: I knew nothing about this film except that it was a war film and Kirk Douglas was in it, and these aren’t exactly selling points for me.
But this movie is one of those movies on the 1001-movies-to-see-before-you-die list that I had never heard of, so when I saw the library had a copy I decided to give it a try.
Notes: This movie was more engaging than I expected, it felt like a much more contemporary film than a film from the 1950s. I think that struck me more than the film’s story as I was watching it, but it was definitely the story that has stuck in my brain.
I don’t usually like films that are too political, because I find I can’t keep up with the details and the people involved, but the politics at issue in this film are captivating right from the start, perhaps because the situations are sprinkled with some very dry and subtle humour. The humour doesn’t last.
One of the subplots of the film involves two soldiers who knew each other from civilian life and didn’t get along well at school. On the front line, one of these men is in a position of command (Roget) and selects the other, along with a third officer (Paris), for an especially dangerous reconnaissance mission during which the commanding officer, drunk, “accidentally” kills the soldier he dislikes. The third officer is suspicious and raises the alarm to a man of higher rank (Dax).
When Roget is told that he must select one of his men to put on trial for cowardice, he selects Paris, feeling that Paris has it out for him and is going to turn him in for drinking on duty. When Paris is sentenced to death, Dax ensures that Roget is the one who must blindfold him and carry out the punishment, thus punishing Roget. Roget tries to refuse the posting but is unable to. When blindfolding Paris, Roget breaks down almost to tears, apologizing to Paris, but it is far too little too late. For me it is the most poignant part of the film that encapsulates much and saves the film from being overly black-and-white in terms of its morals.
I certainly did not expect this film to end the way it did, but it is strong and impactful and terrifying and outrageous all at the same time and highly memorable.
Recommend: Yes. Unless you have an insurmountable dislike of war films.