Written by: Johan Fundin on January 13th, 2009
Kubrick and Bergman – two giants of twentieth century cinema – might have left us, but fortunately their films have not. Time to re-discover two anti-war masterworks: Paths of Glory (1957) and Shame (1967).
In these downbeat films we see no bulletproof superheroes. No glorification of battle-scenes. No awarding bravery. Instead, we see libelous views on military commands, societies that inexorably are destroying themselves, and people who are increasingly disillusioned with the world. No wonder these films never made any money.
“A picture can’t make money unless people pay to see it, and people can’t see it if it’s been banned in their country.” – Kirk Douglas (actor, Paths of Glory).
Theatrical Release Date: Christmas Day 1957 (on a single screen in New York).
Director: Stanley Kubrick.
Producer: James B. Harris.
Writing credits: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (screenplay). Humphrey Cobb (novel).
Cinematography: Georg Krause.
Music: Gerald Fried.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolph Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Timothy Carey, Joseph Turkel, Susanne Christian.
DVD release dates: 29 June 1999 (USA), 15 July 2002 (UK).
Approximate running time: 87mins.
Aspect ratio (Video format): Academy ratio 4:3. B&W.
Certification: Unrated (USA), PG (UK), 15 (Sweden). (The film has a history of changed certificates, including being banned in several countries.)
Sound: Dolby Digital mono English, Dolby Digital mono French
Subtitles: English, French
DVD release: MGM Entertainment (USA and UK).
Region coding: NTSC/R1 (USA), PAL/R2 (UK).
Retail Price: $14.98 (USA), £4.97 (UK)
The next morning, while the officers are sitting safe in their luxurious headquarters, Dax leads his men into no man’s land where they are almost entirely wiped out by German gunfire. The second wave, Company B, does not advance at all. This inaction makes Mireau furious, and he orders his artillery to bomb his own men. Without written orders though, Captain Rousseau, in the command of the artillery, refuses to do so. After the retreat, the generals want to set an example by picking three men and have them court-martialled, charged with cowardice. Dax defends the men, but it turns out that the court martial is just a play for the gallery as the officers have already decided that the three soldiers will be executed. After the premeditated verdict is delivered, the soldiers are led away and shot.
Dax learns that Mireau had ordered to bomb his own men, Company B, and tells General Broulard about it. Subsequently, Mireau is relieved from his job. Dax is offered Mireau’s position as Broulard presumes it was Dax’s motive for passing on the information. When Dax explains that he’s not after Mireau’s job, and that he really wanted to save those three soldiers, Broulard pities him for his sentimentality and idealism.
Paths of Glory features several interesting metaphors. The castle works as the officers’ own battlefield where the marble floor is checkered like a chessboard where Broulard and Mireau are exercising their mind games, making the soldiers appear like pawns pushed around by their superiors. (Kubrick, a spare time chess player, would re-install the chess metaphor in each of his two subsequent films, Spartacus [the design of the floor in the Roman senate] and Lolita [the entrance hall of the Haze residence].) Author Paul Duncan (in Stanley Kubrick – The Complete Films, 2003) points out that the scene in the castle where the two generals circle each other under swirling camerawork could be seen as a visual metaphor for their verbal battle. Moreover, Kubrick shows the commanding officers, Broulard and Dax, walking the trenches from left to right, which is strong from a psychological point of view, but the attack on the key German position with the soldiers moving from right to left suggests a psychological weakness, as if Dax’s men are climbing uphill.
Camerawork and composition in Paths of Glory are typical Kubrickian and would be revisited uncountable times throughout the director’s career. His reverse tracking shots are used to show, for example, Dax and the generals walking through the trenches, or the three condemned soldiers be led away to their execution. Kubrick’s trademark symmetrical compositions of the shots outside the castle suggest that this is the world of order (as opposed to the non-symmetrical, chaotic world of the battlefield.)
If you’ve never seen this notorious Kubrick film, take the opportunity and do it straight away. The invention of DVD players has made it possible. Look out for Susanne Christian (née Christiane Harlan) in a small role. She was Kubrick’s girlfriend at the time, and would later become the director’s third wife.
“Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.” – Kirk Douglas
One time on the set, when Kubrick was on about the 40th take of a scene, James Harris (the producer) complained about the many takes. Kubrick went on and shot 84 takes.
For the shooting of the battle scene, more than a ton of explosives were detonated in a single week. Special governmental permission had to be granted to do the scene.
On its release, Paths of Glory caused controversy around the world. In was banned in France until the mid-seventies. It was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival. The Swiss Army censored it. The American military banned it from its European bases. The critics were more positive though.
“Stanley, you can’t just do this scene so your girlfriend can be in the movie.” – James Harris (producer)
Theatrical Release Date: 29 September 1968 (Sweden), 23 December 1968 (USA), 16 June 1970 (Adelaide Film Festival, Australia).
Director: Ingmar Bergman.
Producer: Lars-Owe Carlberg.
Writing credits: Ingmar Bergman.
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist.
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Birgitta Valberg, Sigge Fürst, Hans Alfredson, Ingvar Kjellson, Frank Sundström, Ulf Johanson.
DVD release dates: 20 April 2004 (USA), 2 August 2004 (UK).
Approximate running time: 103mins.
Aspect ratio (Video format): Academy ratio 4:3. B&W.
Certification: R (USA), 15 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital mono Swedish, Dolby Digital mono English
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
DVD release: MGM Entertainment (USA and UK).
Region coding: NTSC/R1 (US), PAL/R2 (UK).
Retail Price: $24.98 (USA), £5.68 (UK).
Under silence, they drive on a bumpy, dusty, winding country road through a sterile landscape with wind-plagued woodland. It’s the stillness before the violence. When they are crossing a bridge over a stream, a fisherman looks up and grins at them. It’s Philip (Sigge Fürst). Philip tells them that he has heard on the radio that there’s a warning for an invasion. Jan says it’s better not to know anything, and his escapism drives Eva mad.
The Residence, where Jan and Eva deliver the strawberries, is a couple of miles outside town. They’re paid in cash, and continue towards town to do some errands. The town is in confusion. Roads are blocked. Transport vehicles are everywhere. And heavily armed soldiers. Military police on motorbikes. Nobody understands what is going on. Messages from authorities are muddy and incomprehensible. Jan and Eva leave their car and push their way through the streets. They’re buying trout and wine for supper.
Home again, during supper, Hell breaks loose. A terrible scream cuts through the dusk. Over the treetops flies a fighter plane. The plane is on fire, and it brushes Jan and Eva’s house before it crashes in the woods. A light follows, and an explosion. More planes. Soldiers in parachutes are scattered throughout the sky. The invasion. The invasion is here. Jan and Eva are frightened. They find themselves in the middle of a military conflict they know nothing about and want nothing to do with. They start packing. When it’s almost dark, and when they’ve collected their belongings into the car, they decide to leave. But soldiers of an unknown regime steps out from the darkness, pull Jan and Eva out of the car and drag them away for questioning. Jan and Eva are physically and mentally abused. Soon, they’re pushed into a military truck with a crowd of people they don’t know and driven away to the headquarters of the interrogation team. The nightmare has just begun…
Shame is an unusual Bergman. It’s the director’s only entry into the war genre. But Shame is not only a strange Bergman, it’s equally one of the strangest war films around, due to the fact that neither the viewer nor the characters know who the opposing sides in the conflict are or what the conflict is about. But that turns out to be a clever point. It makes Shame a timeless movie and an eye-opener for any society in any history (although some critics have speculated that Shame, given its filming year of 1967, is a reaction on the Vietnam War.)
Shame – a film devoid of music – might be an unusual Bergman in terms of genre, but is a classic Bergman in terms of theme, and nevertheless in terms of mood: ultra-pessimistic and ultra-bleak throughout. It’s safe to say that Shame is not sorted under the “feel-good” category of movies. One thread inside the major plot – the progressive breakdown of an artist (Jan) in an alienated environment echoes the fate of the protagonist and artist in Hour of the Wolf , a film released in February the same year (1968) (the artist played by von Sydow in each of the two films.)
Shame is not only a rarely seen film in general. It’s a rare film even for a Bergman festival. It looks like most of the Bergman retrospectives that are playing around the world these days don’t bother to show this piece, which might suggest that Shame is mainly a film for the DVD completist. Anyhow, Shame is highly recommended. Check it out and judge for yourself.
“It ends with one of the cinema’s most awesomely apocalyptic visions: not the cheeriest of films, but a masterpiece.” – Time Out
“Shame was named best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, but is not much talked about 40 years later.” – Roger Ebert, film critic