This is probably Stanley Kubrick's best film, though certainly not his most famous or commercially successful. I might put "Spartacus" slightly above it, but Kubrick never had complete control over that project and was brought in as an afterthought. This is Kubrick at his finest, and in my very humble opinion one of the best black and white films of all time.
|Watching a painful farce|
The tale itself is fairly simple. For no apparent reason, worn-out troops are ordered to take a well-fortified enemy position without any preparation or support. At first, the General in charge, General Paul Mireau, played brilliantly by George Macready, refuses because of the absurdity of the order. But then his superior, the cynical General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), appeals to his ambition by suggesting that a successful attack will bring Mireau a significant promotion, and Mireau agrees. Mireau then goes to the officer who actually would lead the attack, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), and forces him to commit his troops against Dax's better judgment. The attack is a catastrophe, Mireau goes berserk and orders his artillery to fire on his own troops to get them to fight, and then he and Broulard go looking for scapegoats.
|The drawing room is where the most vicious fighting occurs|
Signature Kubrick touches abound. There are long tracking shots in the trenches that give a claustrophobic (but, judging from pictures of the time, majestically accurate) feel to trench combat. The interior scenes of the court martial that results from the failed attack are filmed in a huge, sumptuous room that gives the characters plenty of room to perform the special choreography of movement that was Kubrick's specialty. Quick cuts contrast the horrors of trench warfare with the pampered life of the Generals, such as a transition from a firing squad to Generals Mireau and Broulard eating an extravagant meal.
|One of the great tracking shots in film history|
Many points are made about man's inhumanity to man. The Generals obviously don't care about the welfare of their soldiers, only about their own positions and prestige. They discuss how many men to shoot as scapegoats for the failed attack as if they were mere pawns to be sacrificed. And it is not just the Generals who feel this way, the same attitude infests the lower ranks, too, as shown in a subplot about a failed night reconnaissance right before the main attack. Nobody cares about the welfare of the men under their command. Colonel Dax sees through all this, but can do nothing to affect the course of events.
|They won't be smiling later|
Perhaps the finest moment of the film is toward the end, when Colonel Dax lets loose with his (and undoubtedly most of the audience's) real feelings to General Broulard in an angry tirade. But Broulard is not moved, he simply laughs off Dax as an "idealist" and thus reveals the depths of the system's depravity that allows men such as Broulard to condemn thousands of men to death on a whim. The film does show that there is hope for humanity, though, as tough French soldiers are touched by a captured German girl who is forced to sing a sentimental song for them.
|He's not smiling because he's happy|
I will note a couple of small quibbles, and they are minor indeed. As in just about every Kubrick film, actors recite dialog that does not sound natural for them and does not have the natural cadences of the character. This is particularly evident in some things that the condemned men say. Kubrick's mastery was visual, but he was hit and miss with dialog. Sometimes banal dialog works for him (as in "2001: A Space Odyssey", where the banality of spaceflight is the point), and sometimes it doesn't. There are moments here where it doesn't, and words sound forced.
|Sing, sing a song, sing it loud, make it strong....|
Also, I feel that the actual battle scenes could have been a bit more revealing, with some hint of what the French soldiers were up against. As it is, we must take it on faith that trying to advance on the enemy position meant certain death for the French soldiers. Faith is fine, but it would have been nice to have something concrete to go on, too.
A fine, moralistic film that any fan of classic films should see.