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Indictment of War...Affirmation of Humanity
on 26 September 2005
It has been almost 50 years since this anti-war film appeared, one which was banned in France until 1970. It is based on Humphrey Cobb's novel. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas who also produced it, the film examines a fictional (but nonetheless wholly believable) situation during World War One when French troops are ordered to achieve an impossible military objective: Climb and secure the "Ant Hill," a heavily-fortified German position. Of course the troops are decimated. Whom to blame? General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) who gave the order? The troops' general, General Mireau (George MacReady), whose career ambitions overcame his doubts about the order? The officer (Colonel Dax) who led the attack? General Broulard gives a second order: Select three of the survivors, charge them with cowardice, give them a perfunctory military trial, and then execute them. Their commanding officer is Colonel Dax (Douglas) who had been an attorney in civilian life. He is ordered to be the defense counsel. After the inevitable verdict, the three representatives are executed by a firing squad.
Kubrick presents all this on film as if it were a documentary of actual events. Appropriately, he filmed it in black-and-white, in part to dramatize the obvious juxtapositions of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, etc. The battlefield carnage is extensive but not gratuitous. For me, the insensitivity, indeed inhumanity of the two generals -- far removed from combat in luxurious comfort -- is far more upsetting than the assault on the "Ant Hill." The men who followed orders and lost their lives or their limbs may have died in vain but at least died with honor, if not glory. Kubrick leaves absolutely no doubt about the generals who sent them into battle. Colonel Dax understands the need for military discipline. Orders must be followed. He eventually realizes that no matter how logical and eloquent his defense, the three men are doomed as were so many of their comrades were while climbing the "Ant Hill." Dax also realizes Broulard and Mireau will never be held accountable for the order nor for denying any responsibility for its tragic consequences. Dante reserved the worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. Kubrick ensures that Menju and MacReady portray Broulard and Mireau not as neutral accomplices but as agents of evil: a more dangerous adversary than the one their troops face in battle.
Is conscience among war's victims? That is certainly not true of Dax. He did everything he could to save the three men. He leaves absolutely no doubt in the minds of Generals Broulard and Mireau what he thinks of them, both as officers and as human beings. However, they are his military superiors and the war continues after the executions. I mention all this by way of suggesting a context for my opinion that the final scene in the cafe has a very important purpose: to communicate Kubrick's reassurance to those who see his film that even amidst war's death and mutilation, the very best of human instincts somehow prevail. They cannot be defeated by the "Ant Hill," nor by Broulard and Mireau and their obscene abuse of military justice. In my opinion, that is what Dax realizes in the cafe as he and other soldiers listen to a terrified girl sing. And that is the final "message" which Kubrick seems determined to leave with his audience.