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One of Stanley Kubrick
's earliest films and also one of his most critically acclaimed. A French general during World War One
, seeking a promotion, orders a hopeless attack by his depleted division against a strongly fortified German position. When the attack quickly fails with heavy losses, the enraged general tries to shift the blame for the loss to his soldiers and orders three men to be tried under penalty of death for cowardice, opposed only by his subordinate Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas
), who seeks to save the lives of his men.
This film contains examples of:
- Affably Evil: Right until the very end, General Broulard comes across as a kindly old man, even as he's waxing philosophical on the merits of shooting a man every once in awhile to enhance morale.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: The two primary villains are aristocratic officers living far from the front lines in luxurious surroundings, showing little care for the lives of the men under their command.
- Armchair Military: General Mireau is one of the worst.
- Armies Are Evil: The army orders a hopeless attack, and when it fails, randomly selects three men and sentences them to death in a Kangaroo Court.
- Backhanded Apology: Dax to Broulard:
Broulard: It would be a pity to lose your promotion before you get it. A promotion you have so very carefully planned for.
Dax: Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?
Broulard: Colonel Dax! You will apologize at once or I shall have you placed under arrest!
Dax: I apologize... for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!
- Banned in France: Sort of. While not actually banned, the extremely unflattering portrait of the World War One French Army led to pressure on the film's distributor not to release it in France. As a result, it was never screened for French censors and not released there until 1975. In order to maintain good relations with its neighbor, Germany also kept the film from being released for two years after its premiere.
- Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word
- Chekhov's Skill: His civilian career as a defense attorney becomes critical to Colonel Dax in the second half of the film.
- Colonel Badass : Colonel Dax. Admittedly, this isn't an action movie, but Dax shows that he is fearless, either when he leads men on the battlefield, or when he confronts and expresses his disagreement to his superiors. Near the end he openly expresses his disdain at the face of general Broulard.
- Dirty Coward: Lieutenant Roget.
- Downer Ending: The three innocent men are executed. When Dax returns to his troops, he's informed that they're ordered to return to the front immediately.
- Drinking On Duty: Roget does this.
- Evil Versus Evil : Related to the overall anti-war message of the movie. The French generals are portrayed as hypocrites with little (if any) regard for the lives of their soldiers, and one assumes the generals of the opposing side (the Germans) being similar.
- A Father to His Men: General Mireau puts on an elaborate show about this in the beginning when asked to attack the Anthill, but quickly changes his tune when the possibility of promotion comes up. He's a hypocrite. Colonel Dax plays it completely straight, however.
- Glamorous Wartime Singer: Subverted, in that the beautiful girl who sings the song is a terrified German captive, and she sings a sad folk song about love in war.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: General Mireau has a dilly of a scar on his right cheek. The goodness/evilness of said scar is left as an exercise for the reader.
- That scar was not the work of a makeup artist - George Macready picked it up at a young age in an automobile accident.
- Glory Hound
- I Don't Want to Die: Ferol.
- Kangaroo Court: The court-martial is pretty much this.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: Or, in this case, Cowardly Character, Heroic Actor. Wayne Morris, who played the pusillanimous Lt. Roget, was a true war hero in Real Life. He was a naval aviator - an Ace Pilot with nine aerial victories - in WWII, garnering four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals while flying a fighter off the USS Essex.
- Meaningful Name: During the assault on the Anthill, Mireau orders an artillery battery commander to start firing on the troops that aren't leaving the trenches, but he refuses without a written order. The guy's name? Captain Rousseau.
- Moral Myopia: Broulard, taking the suggestion of having to shoot one hundred enlisted men for cowardice very casually, becomes visibly angry at the suggestion of executing a single officer.
- The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Roget is seen by at least two of his men as a coward and a drunk.
- General Mireau, likewise, comes across as someone completely disconnected from the reality of the war he's asking his men to fight, when he reviews the trench troops to "boost their morale."
- Never My Fault: General Mireau takes this trope to insane levels.
So now I'm the scapegoat! The only innocent man in this whole affair!
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The movie centers entirely on the French army, but (probably wisely) the primarily American and English actors don't even try to change their normal accents.
- Rated M for Manly: While Colonel Dax reviews his troops before the attack, enemy shells detonate less than 10 yards away from the trench. He doesn't even flinch. Then when he blows the whistle to go over the top and advance across the No-Man's Land, he's out in front leading the way with enemy bombardment and machine-gun fire going off on all sides. Grrrrrr.
- Shot at Dawn
- Shout Out: General Mireau's striking the shell-shocked soldier is reminiscent of the infamous George Patton "slapping incident".
- Shown Their Work: The wattled revetments of the trenches are correctly done in the French style. The concessions to filmmaking were making the trenches wider and straighter than they would normally have been, to allow the camera dolly to pass through.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Broulard gives Colonel Dax a lecture to this effect near the end, in response to Dax's Suddenly Shouting.
General Broulard: Colonel Dax, you're a disappointment to me. You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command. You are an idealist - and I pity you as I would the village idiot.
- Smug Snake: Major Saint-Arnaud when acting as prosecutor during the trial of the doomed soldiers. During the first act, he was mostly a Yes Man to General Mireau; during the execution, he has the good grace to look thoroughly uncomfortable while reading the sentence of the court.
- Suddenly Shouting: Dax disgustedly ranks out Broulard for thinking that he was just after a promotion, causing Broulard to demand that he apologize:
Colonel Dax: I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL BEFORE I APOLOGIZE TO YOU NOW OR EVER AGAIN!
- Throw It In: Private Ferol's undignified breakdown as he's led before the firing squad was improvised. According to Timothy Carey, the actor portraying him, he was warned to make it good, because Kirk Douglas wasn't liking it at all.
- Truth in Television: Not that every general was this bad, but a lot of the Aristocrats Are Evil trope was a pretty accurate portrayal of the French high command - so much so that the army had to deal with mass mutinies of their soldiers during portions of the war. The British and German general staffs were a little bit better, but not vastly so.
- Unfriendly Fire
- Unflinching Walk: A variant. As Colonel Dax inspects his men before assaulting the Anthill, the enemy is bombarding their trench. Shells are exploding — loudly — less than 20 feet away from him. Yet, he calmly continues walking past his troops without so much as a twitch when each blast goes off.
- War Is Hell
- We Have Reserves: In order to 'encourage' a company of men who aren't advancing, General Mireau orders his artillery to bombard his own trenches.
- World War One