Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Paths of Glory: Remembrance Day

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”

“Lest we forget” is a phrase commonly quoted this time of year, but what exactly is it we’re supposed to be remembering? The lives of our ancestors who perished in the Great War? The bravery of those who fought for their country?

Paths of Glory is a film that reminds us how the real tragedy of the First World War was how figures of authority allowed so may to die for so little purpose. The plot describes how a general in the French army (General Mireau, played by George Macready) instructs his division to embark on a suicidal mission to take from the Germans a territory called the ‘Anthill’, all in order for him to strengthen his claim for a promotion. After the mission inevitably goes wrong and his men retreat, a kangaroo court is held to put on trial three men singled out for cowardice, with the decent Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) volunteering to defend them.   

The film demonstrates how the real villains of World War One were not the soldiers fighting for the Germans and the Central Powers, but the authority figures on either side who sent the young men to their deaths. Although the rhetoric surrounding Remembrance Day is occasionally in danger of blurring both WW1 and WW2 into the same conflict, it’s important to remember that the Germans who fought in the former war were not Nazis, but instead from a similar society to Britain’s at the time. Neither can the modern virtue of ‘fighting for our freedom’ be retrospectively applied, given how much of the world was under the British Empire.

The conflict in Paths of Glory is that of the internal struggle between the French soldiers and their superiors, rather than between the French soldiers and the German soldiers. Despite being a war movie, little of Paths of Glory actually takes place on the battlefield with both sides shooting at each other. Instead, the focus is on the events leading towards a specific battle, and the subsequent aftermath of when the men refuse to comply with their superiors’ reckless and careless demands. When General Miseau even attempts to fire on his own men, the message of the film becomes clear – the soldiers are in even more danger from their leaders than they are from the opposite side.

None of the soldiers in the film come across as noble and heroic; rather, they’re presented instead as tragic victims, who from the very first scene are shown to be mere sacrifices for the unworthy cause of their general’s promotion. When the horror of war becomes too much  and a soldier is shown breaking down in tears or suffering from shellshock, we’re prompted to condemn those who condemn them for lack of bravery, and instead recognise that such despairing outpourings are the natural response to such tragic circumstances.

The final and most famous scene epitomises how this film, unlike the generals, treats the soldiers as human beings. A montage of close-ups of the soldiers’ faces whilst they take part in a sing-a-long is undeniably moving, and bitterly poignant with the knowledge that most of them will soon be dead. That the tune they hum along to is a German folk song led by German captive is especially telling – these solders feel far more of an affinity to this girl on the enemy side than they do their mansion-residing commanding officers.

Watching this scene and observing the sadness in each soldier’s face is perhaps the best way to remember World War One. It is of course crucial to remember the tragedy of all those lives lost, but to also not legitimise those deaths by saying their cause was worthy and noble.


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