This week, audiences will have the chance to see the two faces of Kirk Douglas. Both have a dimple in the chin. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which is back in cinemas from Friday, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, share an unforgiving analysis of complacency and corruption. In each film, human life is reduced to collateral that can be used for professional advancement. Douglas is positioned on opposite sides of the ethical divide in these pictures. In Paths of Glory, he exudes grizzled nobility as Dax, a colonel in the French army. (Yes, this is one of those movies in which we must suspend our disbelief higher than the Eiffel Tower and accept that American actors are playing foreign characters. Go with it. It’s worth the trouble.)
The film’s re-release now is occasioned by the centenary of the First World War. But while this is set during the third year of that conflict, and is inspired by actual events involving General Réveilhac, who ordered an attack on his own men in Souain, it would be a misrepresentation to call it a war film, or even to claim that it is primarily concerned with war. Conflict is merely the arena in which moral fallibility is exposed.
However, Dax’s principles are steadfast and non-negotiable. He can sniff out the weasels in the officer class and he isn’t afraid to make them pay for their cowardice. He is one of only two characters who appear in both of the film’s key locations: the French army’s trenches, where Kubrick’s Steadicam floats smoothly along the grubby arteries while the anxious and the shell-shocked wait to fulfil their duty as cannon fodder, and the magnificent ice-palace of a château in which the top brass bargain and barter over the extent of acceptable casualties.
We have seen at the start of the movie that the château is a moral vacuum, a place in which carpeting and cognac take precedence over compassion or ethics. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives there to persuade General Mireau (George Macready) to order an advancement to a German position known as the Anthill, a move which will in all likelihood decimate the infantry. Mireau is aghast. He couldn’t possibly do that. Broulard accepts what he says, and takes him gently by the arm. He leads Mireau around the luxurious room as they talk softly together. Their perambulations—circling a vase of flowers here, strolling toward the bright windows there—suggest a manipulative choreography that has been re-enacted over centuries by their callous forebears. It’s a dance of death. When it is over, Mireau has had his mind changed and his head turned by flattering enticements. The blood of his men is ready for the spilling.
Near the end of the film, when an unforgivable injustice has been visited upon the humble foot-soldiers by their superiors, Dax is summoned to the château for breakfast with Broulard and Mireau. During this meeting, he too is offered a bribe. No one who has got more than five minutes into the film will need a spoiler alert to avoid knowing that Dax wouldn’t accept gold as payment for the blood and bone of his men. Chuck Tatum, on the other hand, would have bitten off Broulard’s arm at the elbow if he had offered him so much as a tin sheriff’s badge. Tatum is the former big-time reporter played by Douglas in Ace in the Hole. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he snarls. But after a year at a dusty Albuquerque daily, he’s going stir crazy. No wonder he leaps at the discovery of a looter who has become trapped in a cave while digging around for Native American artefacts. Tatum manages to reach the poor sap, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), and promises he’ll do everything he can to get him out. First, though, Tatum manoeuvres his camera through a gap in the rock and takes a snap for the next day’s front page.
Tatum wants to own the story, to have access denied to his old colleagues from the cities who will inevitably come flooding into town, and he makes a deal with the local sheriff to that end—he even gets his own tin badge. But that isn’t the worst of it. From the moment he gets the first intoxicating whiff of copy, he starts shaping reality for his own gain. Imagine if Leo were rescued too soon: that wouldn’t do. So Tatum prolongs his ordeal, directs the supporting players (such as Leo’s wife, who had been planning to leave him) and keeps the story moving. It could run and run—just so long as Leo can’t.
Douglas shot Ace in the Hole in 1951 six years before Paths of Glory. It may as well have been sixty. Both Dax and Tatum are wind-beaten souls but in the earlier film (made when he was 35), Douglas still has a softness about him which undercuts his blunt instrument of a face; he’s like a marshmallow anvil. In Paths of Glory, as befits the part, he is transformed into a piece of weaponry. The miracle of his performance lies in his ability to convey the humanity thriving within Dax. Distance from the nitty-gritty of conflict has inured the warmongers to the suffering it entails—just like the squabbling puppetmasters of the nuclear age in Kubrick’s later Dr Strangelove (which is really Paths of Glory with the satire dials cranked to Maximum). But after all that time with a bayonet in his hands, Dax remains more man than killing machine.
Three decades separate the action of these pictures but both employ at times a similar tone of appalled comedy. If Dax and Tatum were to somehow come face to face, it would be quite the stand-off. Neither man would be dissuaded from the positions they hold, though Chuck Tatum might at least get some sizzling copy out of the encounter.
Paths of Glory is on release from 2 May. Ace in the Hole is on DVD and Blu-ray now in Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series.