‘There is no such thing as shellshock!’ This line, obstinately spat from the mouth of George Macready’s coldly belligerent General Mireau, rings unnervingly through the duration of Kubrick’s uncompromisingly bleak depiction of the French military in 1916. With the troops’ advancement and the generals’ tactics in states of miserable stasis, the men and boys of mainland Europe dig themselves into miles of trenches, zigzagging through the abject horror of a continent razed by war. As the sombre voiceover in the film’s opening sequence informs us, the remaining soldiers measure their progress not by the mile, but by the hundreds of feet.
Mireau’s dismissal of the psychosis suffered by the filthy private presented to him during a supposedly morale boosting inspection of a company relentlessly plagued by the whistle and boom of enemy ordinance fully encapsulates the ignorance and adopted impunity of the French top brass during the most stagnant period of the Great War. Burdened with the impossible task of seizing and holding a pivotal German stronghold dubbed ‘the Anthill’, Mireau eschews all doubt of victory and demands allegiance from the remains of his battered troops, threatening the ultimate consequence for those bold enough to choose mutiny over the glory of France.
In the face of this merciless injustice is the defiant Colonel Dax, played by the film’s lone star Kirk Douglas. His fee accounted for 30% of the budget and the film owes much to his portrayal of an officer still clinging to valour. The levelling thousand yard star he conjures as Dax performs his officer’s rounds makes for film’s most iconic scene; the weight of his charge realised in a hollow-eyed march, his gaze passing the defeated faces of rows of men doomed for a suicidal charge into a hell of wire and bullets, beautifully tracked by Kubrick’s trademark innovative camerawork. The muted procession is unwaveringly balanced, despite the film preceding the Steadicam by more than a decade. Through Douglas we glimpse the film’s central conflict. In war, what’s really more valuable; the life of one man or the fear of a hundred?
Adapting the story from Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel, Kubrick sought to produce the ultimate anti-war film, and was so successful in translating both the savagery of the trenches and the callousness of the generals that the film was banned in nations the world over for years after its release, the unbridled cruelty of the officers deemed an attempt to discredit the very notion of military. Regardless of your views on remembrance poppies or the role of modern military, the reality of the First World War was one of utter devastation. A hundred years since its outset, for us the trauma of civilisation’s first industrial conflict will forever remain unfamiliar. However, this film and its desolate fields of monochrome mud, broken men wincing under shell-fire and rage-inducing officers dining beneath ornate baroque tapestries – all meticulously and intimately framed by the 20th century’s most demanding filmmaker – make for a tragic and enthralling journey into a realm of terror and sorrow.