The important antiwar film Paths of Glory (1957) plays out with operatic grace & a tragic inevitability. It's one of the most pathetical war films ever made, the acting, writing, & stark b/w cinematography coming together as so much more than the sum of its parts.
The extended battle sequence is one of the most gruesome imaginable, & if all one cared about was an action film, this would provide quite the heaping helping. But it is not action that will be forever remembered. It will be the emotional content of all that follows the battle.
A general (George Macready) with no moral center & no sense of proportion, with only a sick glee at the spectacle of warfare as viewed from a safe distance, sends soldiers on a suicide mission to take a hill which had they been able to take it would've resulted in nothing of practical value. When they are repulsed, the general forces their commander to select three to be tried for cowardice under threat of firing squad.
Kirk Douglas is as good as he gets playing Colonel Dax, the men's commander who has been selected as the defense attorney for the token Three. He tries everything legal & even a bit of blackmail to save his men from the firing squad. But what really can be done within a system that cares nothing for logic, common sense, compassion, or justice.
Although these are nominally French soldiers, & the story loosely based on an historical event of the first World War, having them acted by a mix of Americans & Brits gives them a universality rather than historical specificity. It is not odd that these purported Frenchmen have English or New York accents because they're not really intended to indict one nation. And coming after World War II, it wasn't really even about World War I, but all modern wars.
The hypocrisy & insanity & degeneracy of men who wage wars others will die in has rarely been made so evident. The last scenes before the men are sent again to their deaths, of the soldiers in the canteen at first tormenting a German girl then falling into melancholy to hear her sing a sad song, is surreal because too real. It touches deeply a state of humanity in even the most inhumane conditions.
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