Dax’s Whistle

Paths of Glory (1957)

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957) | MGM
MGM

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,
Thomas Gray


There’s no such thing as an anti-war film
. This somewhat famous misquote is attributed to François Truffaut, whose actual words are from a 1973 Chicago Tribune interview with film critic Gene Siskel:

Siskel: There’s very little killing in your films. How come?

Truffaut: I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.

Usually this is where the (mis)quoted material ends, but the interview continues:

Siskel: Even a film like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or his Dr. Strangelove?

Truffaut: Yes, I think Kubrick likes violence very much.

Siskel then interrupts his proceedings to include a parenthetical statement: he’s thought about Truffaut’s words for weeks, and is finally beginning to understand and agree with the observation, that Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory isn’t so much anti-war as it is critical of the French governmental institutions that lead people into war. Siskel concludes: “War isn’t hell; it’s just the men who run them are frequently hellish.”

I must disagree with Truffaut, in that (a) I don’t think Kubrick “likes” violence as much as he isn’t afraid to confront us with our more brutal tendencies, and (b) not every film about war is inevitably pro-war, as I think Paths of Glory demonstrates. Still, Paths of Glory is not so much anti-war as it is anti-institution, a darkly absurdist cinematic glower towards the commonplace political systems which ostensibly promote justice while nevertheless dehumanizing its adherents. Adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of the same name, which derives its plot from history (a true story of WWI French soldiers executed by firing squad) and its title from poetry (the line from Gray’s above epigraphical poem), Kubrick’s fourth feature-length film is a scathing, no-holds-barred depiction of the cruel vanities of warfare and militaristic mindsets.

In this regard, I also disagree with Siskel’s aforementioned conclusion: actually, war is hell. And the men (and it’s pretty much always men) who run the powerful institutions fueling the violence are likewise hellish, or are made so by the violence-prone ethos of hierarchies. Paths of Glory portrays such hellscapes with a remarkable moral clarity and poignancy, highlighting the absurdities of certain human behaviors and presenting them with such aesthetic force that the ideas, images, and sounds resonate in the mind long after the film has ended. It’s this latter formal aspect—the sounds of Paths of Glory—that I wish to focus on here, for while Kubrick’s aesthetic strengths are certainly in the visual and ideational, his films also contain some of the greatest sonic landscapes ever crafted in cinema. Through its musical score and immersive soundscape, Paths of Glory attunes us to the fundamental dissonance and discord of broken human institutions.

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At only 88 minutes, Paths of Glory is half the length of most war films and twice as emotionally affecting. Composer Gerald Fried opens and closes the film with the sharp staccato sound of a snare drum cadence, the military musical convention which sets a steady beat for marching soldiers. The drum roll connotes consistency, moving in step and formation, a musical rallying of the troops. While this feels like a cliché now, it was a novel choice at the time as Paths of Glory’s composer Gerald Fried utilized primarily percussion instruments—snare drums, timpani, tom toms, cymbals—to create a tense, rhythmic, primordial cinematic state. 

After an opening voiceover narration describes the aporia of trench warfare, we’re led to the narrative-establishing conversation between two French generals, the blithely abominable Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and his scheming subordinate, Mireau (George Macready). In the splendor and comfort of a French château—the same seen in Renais’ Last Year at Marienbad—Broulard offers Mireau and his men an impossible task: to take the heavily fortified German-controlled “Anthill” with little support and zero reinforcements. It’s effectively a suicide mission, a pointless publicity stunt, and both generals know it. The two men circle one another like human chess pieces on the château’s lavish tiled floor, their words as weapons of war. Though Mireau initially resists, when Broulard suggests the possibility of a promotion, the lower-ranked man’s tone changes and he agrees to the assault. What do a few thousand lives matter when you can pin another shiny gold star on your uniform?

In a now-classically Kubrickian tracking shot, Mireau proceeds to walk through the trenches, stopping three times to ask soldiers the ridiculous question, “Ready to kill more Germans?” as a twisted attempt at boosting morale. At each of these stops, we are introduced to the three men whom Mireau will later unjustly sentence to death for the failed Anthill attack: Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), and, silently standing by as Mireau slaps a shell-shocked soldier, Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel). There is a sick dehumanization on display in that Mireau will show absolutely no signs of recognizing these same three men during the later sham military trial, nor at their subsequent execution. He doesn’t actually care about who they are; they are just disposable objects for acquiring whatever the institution desires and for Mireau to get his promotion.

We’re then introduced to the intrepid and idealistic Colonel Dax, portrayed by Kirk Douglas in arguably his finest film performance. He’s initially seen shirtless in an underground bunker, an amusing Douglas signature which also connotes vulnerability—we can witness the human being hidden beneath the uniform. As the Machiavellian Mireau blathers on about the need to take the Anthill, Dax demonstrates careful verbal and physical restraint, first by indirectly criticizing Mireau’s conniving suck-up of an assistant, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), then with an even-headed refusal to lead the majority of his men to their deaths. 

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957) | MGM

Yet for all of his prowess, Dax is still entrenched in the institutional system; it’s hard to be both a good man and a good soldier. So when Mireau ultimately gives him no more options, he reluctantly but firmly agrees: “We’ll take the Anthill.” Douglas spits out the line as if under physical duress. In this way, through coercion, Dax becomes complicit in the offense he later condemns—participation in the institution has made this righteous man unjust.

In between Mireau’s farcical motivational speeches, the military snare drums roll on with a punchy tempo. Fried primarily utilizes percussion instruments in the subsequent scenes with the spineless and drunken Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) “leading” a reconnaissance mission through no-man’s-land with Paris and Private Lejeune (Kem Dibbs). The sequence features some of the clearest and best composed shots in any war film, but it’s the accompanying sound design that truly generates its affective impact. Fried employs timpani and snare drums to create an ominous sense of dread with underlying military subtexts. This is both a military cadence and a death march as the three men trudge through the bombed-out environment on a doomed mission. 

When, against military protocol, the frightened Roget orders Lejeune to scout ahead alone, he pulls a grenade from his belt and places it in the dirt on the edge of the trench. Kubrick prominently emphasizes the grenade in the frame for the remainder of the scene, a visual harbinger of impending violence accentuated by the driving drums. When Roget later throws the grenade then cowardly flees, the more courageous Paris searches for the missing Lejeune, only to find the scout’s bloodied body smoking from the grenade’s blast. It’s a horrifying scene, made all the more shocking by Kubrick’s cinematography and Fried’s percussion: as Paris glances over and discovers the blown-apart body of his companion, timpani drums crescendo, the camera quickly pans downward, and cymbals sharply crash/roll before an abrupt editorial cut to a scene of Roget filing the manipulative military paperwork recording Lejeune and Paris’ deaths.

What the scene makes apparent is both the gruesome bloodshed of trench warfare and how institutions make individual human lives trivial. Roget and Paris are old schoolmates, with a rivalry dating since at least adolescence. In any other circumstance, Paris is clearly the better man, more competent and courageous and caring, the person we’d prefer to follow. But in this institutional context of the military and war, Roget outranks Paris, and thus Roget matters more on all accounts. Though Paris confronts Roget about his cowardice and treachery, this only prompts Roget to later choose Paris to be killed by firing squad in the sham military execution following the failed Anthill attack. And Paris can do absolutely nothing about it—his worth is defined by his military ranking. Thus, an innocent man will die while a cowardly murderer will live, and the institution will not simply turn a blind eye, it will nod its approval.

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The entire Anthill battle sequence lasts perhaps seven minutes, but it feels like an eternity. As the artillery shells explode, we witness a second Kubrickian tracking shot through the trenches featuring Dax walking along with a steely pace. The scene shifts between shots of Dax in center frame and shots from Dax’s POV of the huddled men looking directly into the camera’s eye (and thus our eyes) while awaiting their imminent deaths. When it’s time to charge, Dax moves with brazen fluidity up a ladder, a pistol in his hand and a whistle at his lips. He stands atop the rampart in a stooped-yet-heroic posture with arms outstretched and he blows his whistle, an iconic image of bravery in the face of an impossible mission (and a great pose for the movie poster).

Amid exploding bombs, firing machine guns, and screaming men, Dax’s whistle pierces through as the loudest sound in the audio mix. It is sharp and shrill, at once a rallying cry and a distress signal. Dax will continue to periodically blow the whistle as the men “charge” (really, trudge) through dirt and debris and death toward their own obliteration. Though positioned far away, the camera zooms in and tracks with Dax as he walks forward in a hunched position, his pistol at the ready, though we never see him fire a single shot. He repeatedly turns and waves his arm in a massive arc, compelling the frightened soldiers forward as we hear the whistle blow. Without the whistle sound, the whole scene would fall flat. In what is an otherwise overwhelming battle scene, Dax is our sonic, and thus our emotional, anchor.

It becomes abundantly clear that the attack is a failure when Dax realizes that one-third of the men remained in the trenches. Covered in mud and grime, he heads back and confronts Roget, who stands in befuddled fear. “Get these men out of the trenches!” commands Dax. The soldiers simply stand and stare. “Alright! Let’s give it another try! C’mon! Let’s give it another try!” Dax screams, climbing the ladder again and blowing his whistle as a dead body falls on him from above, knocking him back down to earth.

Let’s give it another try. Have we thought these same words when voting again for our preferred dysfunctional political party, or re-entering a toxic workplace environment, or attempting to maintain an obviously abusive or manipulative relationship (romantic or otherwise)? If we just tried a bit harder—if we just blow the whistle louder—perhaps our hopeful spirits can overcome the bullets and bombs and institutional evils. Douglas’ performance of this line is perfect, simultaneously communicating idealistic fervor and helpless despair. Let’s give it another try. It’s almost comical. You have to laugh, else you’d simply weep.

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“Let’s give it another try” becomes Dax’s modus operandi throughout the remainder of Paths of Glory. He tries to haggle with Broulard and Mireau as they consider executing 100 men, and manages to convince them to kill only three. He tries to defend the three doomed soldiers as a lawyer during the military court martial, only to realize that the entire proceeding is an insincere formality, a bureaucratic tick-of-the-box to make sure the executions are done “properly.” While his literal whistle is absent, Dax becomes an actual whistleblower: he tries to free the soldiers through political means by revealing Mireau’s unconscionable order to fire artillery on his own men during the Anthill attack. It’s to no avail—Mireau is later reprimanded, but the executions still go forward, and Broulard mistakes Dax’s motives as a ploy to gain Mireau’s position. 

Apparently in early versions of the script, Kubrick had the three condemned soldiers receive a last-minute reprieve, and thus a happier ending; Douglas forcefully protested the change, and what we see on-screen is a bleak and withering vision of trauma and despair. For all of his efforts, all Dax accomplishes is getting his remaining men a few extra minutes of rest before they’re sent back out to the front of the line to die. But every time he tries and tries and tries, I can somehow hear Dax’s whistle. 

Much of the film is absent of a musical score, and certain scenes—such as Dax’s passionate closing speech at the military trial—are sonically sparse, which emphasizes the significance of the spoken word. The camera tracks with the pacing Dax from a distance, echoing the earlier Anthill battle tracking shot and thus conjuring up the sound of the whistle in our imaginations. Dax’s footsteps during his speech click-clack on the château’s floor; his words literally bounce off the walls, echoing in the vast decadent expanse. 

In contrast, when Dax denounces Broulard to his face after the executions, Douglas’ voice is sharp and clear in the pitch of melodrama: “You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man and you can go to hell before I ever apologize to you again!” he shouts. In this case, his words are again the proverbial whistle, an aural reminder of an idealistic, even naïve, hope in the goodness of humanity, a plea to common decency and dignity and compassion. What makes this moment so exasperating—what deflates all sense of catharsis—is that Broulard just smirks and shakes his head in response. He even has the gall to sincerely ask, “Wherein have I done wrong?” A despondent-looking Dax replies, “Because you don’t know the answer to that question…I pity you.”

After the executions take place to the relentless thrum of military drums and Dax’s whistle has been silenced by Broulard’s shameless malevolence, Paths of Glory ends with one of the most affecting and important scenes in all of Kubrick’s oeuvre. Standing outside, Dax overhears cheers and whistles from within the nearby inn where his remaining men have gathered for a brief post-execution respite. The crowded room of rowdy grunts is imbued with a grotesque masculine energy as a captive German woman (credited as Susanne Christian, later known as Christiane Kubrick, Stanley’s wife of more than 40 years) is brought before them on stage for their entertainment. 

The unnamed woman is not a professional singer; she’s unjustly dragged before these leering men against her will, an appalling and lecherous act which initially appears to be the capstone on what has been a series of injustices over the course of the film. But then she starts to sing a German folk song, Der treuer Husar (“The Faithful Hussar”), a familiar tune likely to come to mind for someone put in such an awkward position. At first, her voice is drowned out by the cacophony of the men’s cheers and whistles. Then we hear a soldier in the front row audibly yell, “Louder. Louder!” as her voice rises in the diegetic sound design. As she beautifully sings in untranslated German, the men grow completely silent, then slowly begin to hum along to the recognized repetitive tune. And then, in perhaps Kubrick’s most sentimental and tear-jerking cinematic act, there is a montage of close-ups of the men’s individual faces as they hum along, tears welling up in their weary eyes. By the power of sound and music—as well as feminine strength in the midst of a masculine moral morass—what was just a motley crowd of anonymous military misogyny is now transformed into individual broken-yet-beautiful human beings, persons worthy of dignity and care and even love. The moment is ever so brief, but it’s enough to keep one’s hope in humanity alive.

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Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957) | MGM

Every time I watch Paths of Glory, I find myself overcome with anger. As the credits roll with Gerald Fried’s rendition of “The Faithful Hussar” playing not as a comforting folk tune but as a percussive military march, I am usually a raging sobbing mess, overwhelmed by the unrelenting cruelty of it all. The injustice the film portrays is so goddamn infuriating precisely because it is so familiar. 

We recognize characters like Broulard and Mireau and Roget because we know versions of them in the real world. The over-the-top evil villains stereotyped in cinema have become—or, more disturbing, have always been—commonplace. They are our employers, our public officials, even our parents. We know of lawyers and judges who acquit murderers or send innocent people to prison; police officers and military personnel who shoot unarmed Black people in the streets or waterboard supposed terrorists; businesses and banks that lay off faithful employees while giving CEOs financial raises; clergy who calmly spout spiritual clichés while promoting immoral political policies; politicians who have colluded and lied and cheated their way to the top all while claiming total innocence and lack of responsibility for the rampant suffering and injustice around them. We have each witnessed, or perhaps have been, the Colonel Dax of a particular situation, the lone person crying out that the institution is broken but who is met with incredulity, apathy, or pity. We blow Dax’s whistle, but it falls on morally deaf ears as the marching drums of ideology drown out any possibility of reception.

Are we doomed to self-destruction by means of our own human-made institutions? Or do we have to inevitably fall in step with the cadence of the corrupt powers and principalities that appear to be running things around here? Paths of Glory provides little sense of comfort for the present, nor a utopian vision of a hopeful future; indeed, its singular point of unambiguous clarity is the inevitability of death—these paths of glory will ultimately lead to the grave. 

Yet I am not convinced that Paths of Glory is sadistic or misanthropic. It is, instead, a cinematic mirror of ethical lucidity which invites us to face ourselves and recognize the systems of depravity which so desperately want us to overlook or surrender to them. For we, like Dax, are complicit—we are participants in these institutions, and thus not exempt from active participation in their reform. To opt out, to not vote, to say nothing—these are not morally neutral stances, but concessions to the iniquitous authorities at large. If this world is to ever change for the better, we will have to break free from the distorted lockstep anthems of ideological entrenchment. We can draw on better, alternative resources and rhythms to create new social harmonies marked by collaborative care rather than discordance. Dax’s whistle was overpowered because it was a single shrill note. A collective, communal, counter-cultural symphony of justice is not so easily overcome. 

In the midst of the overwhelming chaos, Dax’s whistle is also an auditory sign of life—if we can hear it, it means Dax still lives, and so do we. And if we’re still alive and breathing, if the grave has not yet swallowed up our future, then there remains a modicum of hope that things can change. Redemption may be possible. Let’s give it another try.