Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Paths of Glory: A Comfort Film of Sorts

Adolphe Menjou & Kirk Douglas "discuss" honor & integrity in
Paths of Glory. Photo credit: United Artists/Bryna Productions
                                            Paths of Glory: A Comfort Film of Sorts


                                                                             Jay Agan

     Sometime in 1967. Early Sunday Afternoon. I'm on leave from military school about to go back in a few hours. Really looking forward to it. NOT! It's after dinner & a war flick comes on. Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas. Strange as it sounds, I hated military school but have always liked war films.
     The film got to me on a different level than most. It wasn't the "horrors of war" that hit me as it was the "krap rolls down hill" aspects.
     1916, western front, French lines: Col. Dax (Douglas) is saddled with the task of a near suicidal assault on "the anthill". An impregnable, fortified strongpoint in the German lines. Due to poor planning, unforeseen circumstances, & blunders from higher in the chain of command, a heavier toll than expected is taken & the attack fails.
     To cover up their stupidity & mistakes, the top brass has three innocent enlisted men (one previously decorated for bravery) tried & executed for "cowardice". Why? Somebody has to pay & it looks good. Setting an "example", it instills elan & "esprit d' corps", motivating one & all to excel. Nothing like your "leaders" having a knife at your back as positive reinforcement. It was krap like this that led to the mutinies in the French army in WWI.
      I don't at all claim to know what it's like to survive under such horrendous conditions. I've never been in battle. My experience is limited to chance encounters with would be muggers. (Ever notice how polite they get when they find you're armed?)

      At the time I viewed this film, I was getting a three year education in what the Russians refer to as "the vertical stroke". If punishment is to be exacted, it comes from the top down, & the one on the bottom feels the effects. Wether you deserve it or not is immaterial. The law of gravity is to be obeyed.
      As this military school was a Catholic establishment, you were to seek out pain as it was good for you anyway. Yeah, right. It wasn't much as military schools go. Run by nuns (Women? Maybe.), their Vatican I mentality certainly added a "dimension".
      The commandant was a cut rate commando hired on the cheap. I understood he was an ex-air force nco. He looked & sounded like Fred Flintstone with half the intelligence & none of the charm. Was always giving life lessons using sports anecdotes. As a geography teacher, it was his job to always be running down other countries & demeaning other cultures.
      I remember him saying he hoped Viet Nam would last long enough so we would make him proud. He extolled how wonderful it was to die for your country (He was still here. What was up with that?).

      During the Pueblo crisis, he expounded on how he would have handled the situation if he was in Buchers' shoes (something about fighting to the last). He himself saw lots of action. As an Air Force MP, he hassled a lot of drunks & shot a stray dog during his time as a small town policeman. The officer cadets, twice the children of hell he was, admired him.
      While the school was short on genius, it was long on collective guilt, bullying & bullkrap. Wether you were guilty of some infraction or not, if you were a part of the perps' unit or just happened to be in the area at the time, you got slammed. Why? Because they can.
      The philosophy was to promote unit cohesion, but you can only take it so far. When it's excessively implemented by those who demand an unearned respect. When it becomes a vehicle for sadists & fools to get their jollies. Then its validity goes out the window.
      I understand Paths of Glory was banned from U.S. military bases when it was released. Thought it would affect troop morale. No doubt the good commandant would have used it as a motivator. It certainly got to me that late 60s Sunday as I headed back to school.

                                                        Article copyright © Jay Agan

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