The American General Broulard

May 6, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

There are certain films which should be required viewing for anyone trying to make sense out of life in George Bush’s America. One is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), shot in black and white on a budget of less than 1 million dollars. 

Paths of Glory is set in 1916 on and near the French front lines during World War I.  The film uses two principal venues: the French trenches and surrounding battleground, and a palace which serves as the officers’ field quarters. The French commander General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders a senseless and suicidal assault on a German position referred to as “The Anthill”. After the assault fails, Broulard orders three men court-martialed  for cowardice, to serve as an example to the others. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who led the assault, is appointed to defend them, although the verdict is a foregone conclusion.

The main thing about General Broulard is that he doesn’t get his hands dirty. He doesn’t get down in the trenches, in fact we never see him outside the palace. He does not even attend the court-martial. Broulard has mastered the art of reaping all the rewards of being commander without coming anywhere near personal discomfort himself, and without having to acknowledge the results of his orders. 

Broulard could not function without a subordinate to carry out his bidding, a role fulfilled by General Mireau (George Macready). Mireau is more of a battlefield commander than Broulard, but his vanity and ambition easily outweigh his concern for the troops: the hint of a potential promotion convinces him to agree with Broulard’s plan to attack the Ant Hill. However, Mireau later learns, much to his surprise, that his loyalty is not reciprocated, and Broulard does not hesitate to sacrifice him when it becomes expedient to do so.

Dax is the heroic figure in the film, who strives to maintain regard for human life in the midst of a brutal war and in the face of obliviousness, incompetence and inhumanity from his superiors. Most significantly, he refuses to play along with Broulard in order to promote his own career, a fact which genuinely surprises Broulard who apparently can comprehend no other motivation for action. The crux of the film is a slightly surreal sequence in which Broulard is summoned out of a formal ball by Dax, who tries to get him to stop the execution of the three scapegoated men. Dax appeals to reality and simple humanity, while Broulard uses his privileged position to ignore both:

Dax: The attack was impossible from the start. The general staff must have known that.

Broulard: Colonel Dax, we think we’re going a good job running the war. You must be aware of the fact that the general staff is subject to all kinds of unfair pressures from newspapers and politicians. Maybe the attack against the Ant Hill was impossible. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been more daring, they might have taken it. In any case, why should we have to bear any more criticism than we have to?

Of course, if no one can know anything, there is no reason to try to make the world a more just place. Because who can say what justice is? Who can say what anything is? This line of reasoning is pleasing to generals quartered in palaces and displeasing to soldiers sent to meaningless deaths.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure we have a Colonel Dax in the United States at the moment: if we do, he’s not getting much airtime. But I bet you can think of a parallel for General Broulard. Hint: I’m thinking of someone who spent the Vietnam War defending Texas from Oklahoma. And any future General Mireau’s may want to take note: just because you put out for your boss, don’t assume he’ll protect you when it counts. Not if throwing you over the side will save his own neck.

Paths of Glory was released a week after David Lean’s Technicolor blockbuster The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s film won the Academy Award for Best Picture while Paths of Glory did not get a single nomination, which leads me to conclude that Hollywood had no more taste for social criticism in 1957 than it has today.

Sarah Boslaugh


Category: Films, Iraq, Media, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

I’m a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I’m a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Only retired Generals seem to be the only knowledgable people comfortable with and capable of expressing effective dissent.

    Genuine criticism, then, might be YEARS too late. The future well-being of our country thus depends upon knowledgable people retiring soon enough that their disclosures are still relevant. This is not a formula that inspires confidence. Effective leaders invite dissent in their presence. They crave it because it makes them better leaders. They thank those who speak up.

    If only it had been that way in the White House since 2002.

  2. Sujay says:

    Great Post Sarah! I'll check out the movie soon. BTW, the best war movie I've seen so far, is one made by the same director, called "Dr. Strangelove". The perspicacity of Kubrick revealed in that cutting satire is startling. Call me a person lacking a sense of humour (in which case, you're right), but "Dr. Strangelove" is the only comedy which I've REALLY liked (though there are a few other great comedies I've loved too, like "Almost Famous"). If I were to come out with my own "essential viewing" list, "Dr. Strangelove" would definitely be on it, and who knows? After watching 'Paths of Glory', it might be too!

  3. Rich says:

    The closest thing we had to a real life Colonel Dax was Colonel David Hackworth, who died two years ago of cancer that was probably caused by his exposure to agent blue (similar to agent orange) during the Vietnam War. Hackworth was a highlydecorated combat Veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and rose to the rank of Colonel from the enlisted ranks. This dynamic leader, who was genuinely concerned for the men in his command was being groomed for bigger and better things (Advancement to General Officer rank) when he stated on network television that we could not win in Vietnam. Hackworth avoided being court martialed by the brass and was able to retire from the army. After living in Australia for a number of years, where he prospered in business and spoke out against nuclear weapons Colonel Hackworth returned to the states and became a reporter and maintained a website dedicated to American Soldiers. Even after he ended his career in the Army, Hackworth spent years standing up for the everyday soldier and almost always found fault with Generals who cared more about their careers than their troops. Hackworth referred to these generals as "perfumed princes". General Mireau in Paths of Glory was definitely a perfumed prince, as was his superior General Brouland.

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