Roommate Russ has been eager to show this one to me, as it illustrates a theory – that with really good filmmakers, you can often tell everything you need to know about a film from just watching the very first shot. And in retrospect I can indeed see what he means.
Granted, there is a narration that helps set the scene here – drily relating some historical facts about France’s involvement in the First World War, and how much of the battles did nothing more than keep things in a state of gridlock, with French and English armies facing off against German troops, both dug into their trenches with little advances on either side. However, the scene we are watching unfold during this narration is not a scene of pitched battle; rather, it is a much more civilized affair, with the French corps commander General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arriving at the chateau serving as headquarters for a division commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Broulard walks right past a somewhat superfluously large squad of footsoldiers at the gate and starts out making small talk with General Mireau, complimenting what he’s done with the chateau before he even brings up the cause of his visit.
For this is not a war film about bravery in combat; instead, it is a war film about how the generals planning the war are often completely removed from the realities of combat, and how their underlings suffer because of it. In this instance, Broulard has come to ask Mireau to oversee a risky attack on a heavily-fortified German outpost. Mireau balks initially – the risk is so great that the attack could wipe out half his men – but all Broulard has to do is hint that Mireau may win commendation for his efforts, possibly even a promotion, and Mireau is all in.
The regiment’s on-the-ground commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), is more alarmed at the risk than Mireau is; but Mireau is by now all-in on the attack, and insists Colonel Dax take charge and rally the men. And to his credit, Dax does what he can, buying his men as much artillery cover as he can and leading the initial charge himself. But the attack is even more of a bloodbath than everyone thought, and the various squad leaders call hasty retreats to spare as many of their men as possible. The B company even flat-out refuses to leave their trench when the see the massacre – even when Dax tries doubling back and jumping into their trench to urge them on, he is cut off mid-sentence when another soldier takes a shot and falls on him, cementing the company’s decision to stay put.
Mireau doesn’t like this at all. He insists that 100 of the remaining soldiers be court-martialed for “cowardice” as an example to the others, but Broulard manages to talk him down to trying just three, while Dax insists on serving as their defense counsel out of concern for protocol. Dax’s concerns are justified – not only do the three soldiers on trial seem to have been randomly selected, but the trial is a kangaroo court, with no chance for Dax to submit evidence for the defense, no logic to the charges, and no record being kept of the proceedings. Mireau just wants to punish someone to save face, the leadership seems ready to let him get away with it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything Dax can do about it.
That last bit was the bit that surprised me most. There are more than a few instances where it seems Dax has come upon a way to Save The Day – an impassioned appeal to the jurors, pages of testimonials on their behalf, an account of some shady hijinks from Mireau. His arguments land – you can see the jurors flinch at his attacks, or their distress as evidence of the soldier’s innocence mounts. And yet…his efforts very nearly come to naught. (I am being as vague as I possibly can there.)
The tone of this film felt almost ahead of its time – or, maybe director Stanley Kubrick had more of an impact on film than I thought. For this was one of his earlier works; I’ve seen some of Kubrick’s later works from the 1970s, and this felt like a 1970s film, something that Kubrick might have produced alongside other post-Vietnam films like The Deerhunter or something. But this was well before Vietnam, a full decade before the kind of films I’m thinking of. The source material is even earlier – this film was based on a book from the 1930s by a Canadian-American screenwriter, Humphrey Cobb, a clearly disillusioned World War I veteran. No doubt it was Cobb who included the brief scenes between the soldiers speculating on the upcoming battle or grumbling about their tin-eared superiors. But I suspect Kubrick had a big hand in an early scene where Mireau is strolling through the trenches on his way to speak to Dax, every so often stopping to jovially ask random soldiers “So, are you ready to kill more Germans?”….followed in one case by Mireau indignantly discharging one soldier when it becomes clear the man is shell-shocked.
“War is hell” isn’t the most unique message to be sure. But this was an unusual message for its time – this was also a time when there were many heroic War Movies celebrating battles from World War II, celebrating the General Mireaus of the war – and conveniently overlooking the Colonel Daxes.