Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film is riveting, both for its story and gorgeous black and white cinematography. I’ve seen this film multiple times, and each viewing is a new and rewarding experience.
To save face following a disastrous and hopeless attack, French military leaders during WWI hold a kangaroo court martial for three soldiers on trumped up charges of cowardice. A general’s promotion hangs in the balance and an example must be set. Kirk Douglas stars as Col. Dax, the commanding officer who recognizes the futility of the offensive, but follows orders anyway, fulfilling his role as a soldier.
The attack is an utter failure, with Dax’s men cut down by an astounding number. Dax leads the men as far as they can go, until they’re forced to retreat. Half of them never leave the trenches, held back by a cowardly leader. Seething with frustration, the general who stands to gain another star should the attack lead to the capture of the “Ant Hill,” orders his artillery to fire on their own men when they don’t leave the trench.
This is powerful stuff. The acting across the board is excellent. The black and white cinematography is fantastic. The settings are strikingly shot: the wet, cold and muddy trenches, the blasted out and body-strewn No Man’s Land, and the cavernous marble and mirror-clad rooms in the palace headquarters. The camera is constantly moving, tracking along with the general as he walks through the narrow trenches, and in a stunning battle sequence, following Kirk Douglas leading his men on the assault toward the Ant Hill. The camera trains on Douglas, but moves sideways, up and down through the muck and mire, as bullets and smoke fill the air, and bodies drop everywhere. The effect is disorienting, since you can’t see what’s “in front” of you, as the camera moves on and you (the audience) are in the thick of it. [*****]