November 11, 2012
‘Paths of Glory’ and Kubrick’s faith in man
There is a little known story that on the night filmmaker Stanley Kubrick died, director Steven Spielberg gathered some friends together and showed the final scene from Kubrick's 1957 film "Paths of Glory." He reportedly chose this particular scene because he believed it demonstrated an aspect of Kubrick's character that was more or less absent from his other work, and after seeing “Paths” at LACMA last night (part of a series of screenings being offered in conjunction with the new Kubrick exhibit), I can’t stop thinking about what this scene meant (though Kirk Douglas, the Clooney of his day, did a fine job of moving me to distraction).
In the final scene of the film, a gang of heathen soldiers, fresh from watching three of their comrades executed by firing squad, let loose at a local bar. Battered by battle and compromised by country, they have been reduced to sacrifices on the altar of patriotism. Their response is regression.
The soldiers are drinking and shouting raucously when a young farm girl is dragged out onto the stage for their entertainment (in the post WWII era, they are French and she is German). Tears streaming down her face, the men wildly catcall, jeer and jibe at her as the bar owner, clutching her possessively, offers her up for their amusement. Kubrick’s savvy eye saw the savagery of the battlefield echo in a supposedly civilized milieu.
Flustered and weeping, the farm girl summons the strength to sing for these brutes a mellifluous melody. She is like them; vulnerable, degraded, powerless. But she is also different: From the depths of her degradation and despair, she offers tenderness. And note by note, as if entranced, the savages become quieter and softer, allowing the sweetness of her voice and the intensity of her emotion to sweep them away. Slowly, soldiers begin to sing and men begin to cry. The nakedness of her pain cracks a hole in their hearts, and they open.
Though Kubrick's work is famous for its fatalism, this scene struck me as deeply religious. Men are not stone, Kubrick seems to be saying, and even beneath layers of hurt, confusion and corruption, humanity remains. The spark of God endures. When there is warmth, hearts turn toward the sun.
To watch, scroll to 3:12 in the below clip: