Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory ends the same way it begins, with the evocative, militaristic beat of a snare drum. The drumbeat we hear in the opening credits repeats as the screen fades to black. Kubrick was, thankfully, loath to ever explain his films. He preferred to allow his audience to interpret and find their own meaning. This is what that drumbeat means to me.
I spent nearly two years working with Mr. Kubrick. Our working together wasn’t limited to time spent on set. It included weekends rehearsing and meals in his comfortable home. Two years is hardly enough time to fully understand a person, and scarcely enough time to comprehend an individual of such complexity.
I mention the musical choice at the start and finish of Paths of Glory because it is a deliberate choice. Musical cues denote or evoke a mood and a subtle statement. In this case, from start to finish, in the taught 88 minutes of storytelling, there’s an interesting absence of character evolution or a change in one’s understanding of war throughout the film. The war, in this case WWII, is presented as something the combatants must participate and endure. It could, in fact, be any war. At the end, three infantry men, accused of desertion, are executed. They might have died on the battlefield, but instead are murdered by their own country. The officers responsible for the execution are not saddened, they feel exempt of responsibility. Colonel Dax, portrayed by Kirk Douglas, who attempts to defend his infantry men, fails and is left in a moral “no man’s land” very much like the combat zone he and the executed men had been forced to fight in.
The film and the script never denigrate the enemy on the other side of the trenches. In fact, we never even see them. Watching the film, one can imagine it’s just as horrible for the German’s on the other side of the battlefield as it is for the French infantrymen. Wet, cold, filthy, brutal, and horrifying. There is one instance where a character speaks directly about the enemy. Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) visits the trenches and asks several soldiers if they’re “Ready to kill more Germans?” The line is delivered as though he believes the infantrymen are finding pleasure in killing other human beings. Spoiler alert; the men do not.
In this film’s case, the enemy is, in point of fact, the commanding officers giving orders and the unseen politicians commanding and controlling them.
Paths of Glory brilliantly visualises this separation of rank by contrasting the muddy trenches of the soldiers with the pompous officers enjoying opulent comfort in a wealthy chateau. Here, wine is sipped from crystal glasses, and the officers wear clean, medal covered, uniforms. The men in the trenches have to manage with tin cups and filthy, blood stained uniforms.
If Paths was set during an earlier period, away from a battlefield, it could easily be a class drama about the bourgeoisie. Kirk Douglas’ Dax is rather like a man stuck between the peasant and noble classes. Because he’s closer to the working than the noble class, he understands their predicaments all too well. In the film, the noble/officers are ready and willing to welcome Dax in, but for him to accept and advance upward to their sphere, it means abandoning and even rejecting his own past.
To be fair, Douglas’ Colonel Dax does slightly change. He begins as a slightly idealistic soldier, the everyman in the story, and evolves into a full blown, disillusioned, cynical soldier. Beyond that, the French and German soldiers fighting over a blood stained piece of earth, appropriately called the “Anthill”, have no significant change from start to finish. The film isn’t so much about the destruction of morals or the perversion of them – it is about the abundant, historical lack of them. Humanity is something Dax is striving to achieve. The commanding officers represent humankind’s collective, xenophobic history – greedy, materialistic ambitions. Dax is not defeated by war, but by the greed and ambitions of his commanders. It is the people in charge that are incapable of peaceful cooperation and nonviolent resolution to conflict.
It’s important to note here that Stanley Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris opted to give Paths of Glory a “happy ending.” Kubrick and screenwriter Jim Thompson actually altered the ending, eliminating the execution of the soldiers by firing squad, to make the film more commercial to the general public. Their script would now have the soldiers’ lives saved from execution at the last minute by Major General Georges Broulard, (Adolphe Menjou). But these changes were rejected by the film’s star, Kirk Douglas. Why did Douglas say no to Kubrick’s script change?
We are, each of us, influenced and shaped by the experiences of our brief lives. The two years I spent with Kubrick certainly altered mine. Kubrick spent three years working with Douglas. From Paths of Glory, 1957, through 1960 on Spartacus. It was Douglas that engaged Kubrick to direct Spartacus. It was also Douglas that demanded that then blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, receive an on-screen credit for his screenplay. During their time together, Kubrick became witness to Douglas’ stoic personality. He witnessed how Douglas used his intelligence, moral beliefs, and powerful position in the entertainment industry. He witnessed Douglas help bring an end to Hollywood McCarthyism. Not coincidentally, Spartacus would be the last film Kubrick made where he did not have full artistic control. I believe this was the result of lessons and knowledge he gathered from Douglas.
In Douglas’ autobiography, he states that his decision to credit Dalton Trumbo was motivated by a meeting he’d had with his producing partner, Edward Lewis and Kubrick. The meeting was in regard to whose name should be credited for the Spartacus screenplay. Trumbo was the author, but he had become a Hollywood pariah for being previously jailed for contempt of Congress during the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1950. As a result, Hollywood executives would not allow Trumbo’s name to appear on any of their projects.
During that meeting, one of Douglas’ ideas was to credit Edward Lewis as sole writer or co-writer. Lewis humbly vetoed both suggestions. Kubrick then suggested that his own name be used. Douglas and Lewis found Kubrick’s eagerness to take credit for Trumbo’s work odious. The following day, Douglas called the entrance gate at Universal Studios saying, “I’d like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo” and “For the first time in 10 years, (Trumbo) walked onto a studio lot.” With this action, Douglas had successfully given Trumbo his name and dignity back.
It’s conceivable that those three years Kubrick spent with Douglas influenced and shaped the man Kubrick became post 1960. Kubrick was a first hand witness of Douglas’ strong, moral perspectives about right and wrong, justice, and the duality of human behaviour that would play a significant role in the films and stories Kubrick would subsequently make. This opinion does not diminish Kubrick’s own personal beliefs, intelligence or moral fibre at all. I believe it reinforced it. Kubrick was a sponge and was continuously improving his knowledge and understanding of the world. He had an awareness of just about everything. I was witness to it.
After The Shining, Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket. On the surface, it is a film about Marine Corp bootcamp and the Vietnam war. If you strip away the Marine Corp and Vietnam, it’s about human behaviour and how we behave in times of stress and conflict. What we do when people start violently dying around us. Although the language and time period are different, Colonel Dax is not so dissimilar to Private Joker. Cynical from the start, more cynical disillusioned in the end. The “Blanket Party”’ Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) suffers is not dissimilar to the beating Early Man inflicts upon another person in 2001. Sometimes directors make the same movie over and over.
The films Kubrick made after Paths of Glory, in order are: Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. Each of these films share two common threads; violence as a solution to violence and the pursuit of material gain. Two flaws which are tightly wound within our DNA. In 2001, a tribe of early humans is driven away from a watering hole by a rival group of early humans. The next dawn, one of the humans discovers that a bone can be used as a weapon, which he then uses to beat a rival human to death with. Elated, the early man flings the bone into the sky – and Kubrick executes what might be the greatest edit in film history – the bone travels up, higher and higher, spinning and tumbling against a beautiful blue sky. It is as though the bone has travelled millions of years into the future and becomes a spacecraft spinning through the blackness of outer space. Millions of years in geological time are mere seconds in astronomical time. In astronomical time, our Early Man ancestor was here just a moment ago. In astronomical time, humans are like mayflies, whose lives are but a few minutes.
In an interview about 2001 for the New York Times, Kubrick said: “Somebody said man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilised human beings. You might say that is inherent in the story too. We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Man is really in a very unstable condition.” In his own words Kubrick is saying human beings need a complete change of form, a transfiguration into a more spiritual state of being. In his next film, A Clockwork Orange, his portrayal of human vs. human violence was operatic and ultra-violent: a filmed portrait of human depravity. Clockwork garnered unwanted notoriety in 1972, when a 14-year old had been accused of manslaughter, and the prosecution argued that A Clockwork Orange had relevance to the case. It quickly became linked with further cases and many ‘copycat’ crimes reported. It got to a point where protests were even being mounted outside Kubrick’s house. Kubrick argued that associating actual violence in his film was misleading, stating that a film cannot make someone do something they weren’t already capable of doing. That the crimes, copycat or not, would have happened anyway. It’s not clear what year Anthony Burgess’ novel takes place, but it is clear that Alex and 2001’s, Early Man, were not so distant relatives. Millions of years later, we are still senselessly beating one another to death. Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) elegantly reflects our flaws, our lies, our obsessions, our fears, and our vanity. Pugilism and a duel with pistols are the methods of problem solving. In The Shining, Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) is a child abuser and bully to his wife. Kubrick told me he was surprised when people would say “Jack was clearly crazy before he arrived at the Overlook Hotel.” He replied: “Well, yeah. He was crazy. He was taking his family up the mountain to kill them. Is that normal?”
It could have been Nicholson and Kubrick’s choice to portray Jack Torrence as a psychotic from the first moment we meet him. Then, once he’d arrived at the hotel, allowed the character to blossom into full blown insanity as he settled back into his role as the hotel’s “caretaker.” Maybe. Maybe Kubrick was attracted to the material because it confirmed a system of belief or a pattern established in his other work. Kubrick repeatedly returned to the theme of Early Man’s brutish behaviour. Did Kubrick believe that, even though a million years had passed, Early Man and the club he used to kill his rivals was still within each of us? Kubrick repeatedly demonstrated that even though we have intelligently evolved, when conflict arises we use the bone to overcome and control others.
Our inability to peacefully resolve disagreements is the evolutionary step we have not made. Modern man is standing on the shoulders of Early Man carrying the bone and when push comes to shove, we are ready to beat each other’s brains in.
“You wear a peace sign on your body armour and you write Born to Kill on your helmet. What is that? Some kind of sick joke?”
“I think I was trying to say something about the duality of man, sir.
“You know, the Jungian thing. Aggression and Xenophobia on the one hand. Altruism and cooperation on the other.”
Once I completed filming Full Metal Jacket, I returned to New York. When the film was about to be released Kubrick and I had several conversations about how to address the press and what to say and what not to say. His advice was wise and never demanding. He was sharing his insights about the type of people I’d be speaking with. One of the things he said was that I’d be speaking for him. That was both daunting and flattering. For Kubrick to think I could speak on his behalf was a formidable postulation. One can never assume to fully understand another person, or their motivations. One can look over the landscape of a career and try to interpret character and behaviour. I’ve looked at, and admired, the actions Kurt Douglas made during the period of time he spent working with Kubrick. It has helped me to reflect upon and understand my own life.
In the original screenplay of Full Metal Jacket, Pvt. Joker was killed in the final scenes. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. It is not unusual for a script to change, or for scenes to be edited out of the completed film. What is compelling about this change is how we arrived at it.
During the first days of filming, Stanley invited me into his Winnebago for a coffee. During our conversation he told me he had a “No bad ideas” rule. “If I suggest something, don’t say that’s a bad idea. Don’t say it’s stupid or wouldn’t work.” I very much liked that rule and wholeheartedly agreed. “Good.” He said, “What do you think of the end of the film?” I told him the many reasons I liked the ending – primarily because it illustrated the human cost of war. Stanley agreed with my explanation – but asked me to continue thinking about it. A couple times a week, he would ask me about the ending and we would have a discussion.
Now, it’s important to mention that Stanley never proposed an alternate ending. Ours was a one sided conversation with me explaining why I continued to believe that Joker should die.
One day, months now into filming, Leon Vitali came to my trailer and told me Stanley wanted to see me. Leon, was Kubrick’s Swiss Army knife. There was nothing Leon couldn’t do and Stanley had him do just about everything. I followed Leon to Stanley’s trailer and when I entered, I found three other actors. Apparently, Stanley had invited them into his trailer to talk about the end of the movie, because, Stanley stated it – “I’ve been asking you about the end of the movie for weeks and you always say you like it. Well, I just asked these three, and each of them has an alternate ending” which the three actors then presented. “Well Stanley” I said, “I guess you could shoot all three and when you realise how stupid they are, we could reshoot something else, like we have the rest of the fucking movie.” What had I said?! I had offensively broken his “no bad ideas” rule. I walked out of his trailer and returned to mine, fully expecting to be fired. I wasn’t. But over the next several weeks, I was castigated by Stanley. I did all I could to get back in his good graces but it was an uphill journey. Then, after what seemed an eternity, he began discussing the day’s work with me and casually asked, “and have you been thinking about the end of the film?” I hadn’t. At all. But I felt compelled to offer something. I was angry at him for his unyielding petulance and bitterness. So rather than say no, I told him I had been. My response was a reaction and reflection of Kubrick’s verbal abuse toward me. “Yeah Stanley, I have. He should die.” What? “Joker should die. He should go through boot camp and have the guy who’s been teaching him how to survive in a combat situation get shot and killed in a latrine. Joker should live. He should see the guy he’s been trying to help survive bootcamp stick an M-14 in his mouth and blow his brains out. He should go to Vietnam and have the one guy he knows from bootcamp die in his arms. He should live. He should have to stand over a young Vietnamese girl, who’s bleeding to death, begging him to shoot her, and he pulls the trigger and ends her life. He should live, Stanley. Because that’s the real horror of war. Having to spend the rest of your life with that in your head. He should live.” Stanley looked at me, and I swear his eyes turned black. After a moment he leaned toward me and said “That’s the end of the picture.” His decision to change the ending is, in my opinion, an evolutionary step forward. Joker is aware and conscious of his actions. The audience cannot unsee what Joker has experienced and done.
What transpired over the months of doing publicity and attempting to speak on behalf of Stanley, certainly transformed me and my world view. The critics and journalists repeatedly called Kubrick and his films hard and cold. Sometimes “brutal” and “mean.” Stanley was a realist. Full stop. He was a person who saw situations as they actually are – and accordingly reflected what he saw, in his films. He had no time for make believe.
Hollywood films paint pretty, idealistic pictures. In a typical ninety minute film we are presented with a situation or conflict. The next step is offering some sort of solution and the protagonist will make the decision to undertake the difficult mission of solving the problem. He or she often gets the boy or girl as a reward and there is a happy ending. The actors are usually dressed well. Their hair and makeup is perfect for the situations they will find themselves in.
Stanley wanted a more honest reflection of life. A realistic view. I would say he was sadly aware of just how closely related we all are to 2001’s Early Man. It is the realist that will save us from our past and push us into the next chapter of human evolution. It is the realist who will tell us that if we don’t evolve, we will destroy ourselves.
Joker lived. Joker was a realist. He understood that if we don’t learn to problem solve without resorting to violence, humanity is destined to be like Dr. Strangelove’s Major Kong (Slim Pickens) sitting on the hydrogen bomb.
And here we are today in 2022. Still under the threat of nuclear war.
War is normal. We hear about it everyday. We hear about it in every corner of the world. War on cancer, war against Covid, gender war, war against crime, war against poverty. Each of these have zero to do with the realities of actual war. War is the destruction of life. War is not a sport. War is not two teams doing battle to score a goal. The word and its meaning should never be diluted from what it is. When it is, the word becomes watered down and tragically normalised. War is death.
Like Kubrick, films should not be made that romanticise war and the mistreatment of others. We must look honestly at how we harm others and make a conscious choice to stop ourselves before we do.
In 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon put up a billboard in NYC’s Times Square which read, “War is Over. If you want it.” The second sentence is the important one. If you want it. Spoiler alert: I do.