“Window [opened] onto reality”: Illustrations of Brutality and Abuse in War

Paper by Claire Thompson.

Throughout the 20th century, World War I and the Vietnam War yielded a number of films that protested the brutality and abuse issued by the leaders of these conflicts. In particular, Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957) and All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) use equally realistic combat scenes to display the brutality of World War I, and the copious amounts of men who unjustly died in the conflict. Born on the Fourth of July (Stone, 1989) traces protagonist Ron Kovic’s (Tom Cruise) odyssey from a naive patriot to an enlightened protester against several components of the Vietnam War, including the lack of domestic support for the war’s political justification. Each film depicts either the abuse against the soldiers, either through the power of the military leaders (as in Paths of Glory) or through the influence they have over the soldiers (as in Born on the Fourth of July and All Quiet on the Western Front). Through varying narratives, editing and mise-en-scene, all three films highlight the brutality of war through the sacrifices their protagonists make and the abuses of power than enable such conflicts, uniting them in their ostensible anti-war sentiments. Additionally, all three films arguably strive to persuade audiences of these themes, although the specific goals of each director and their historical accuracy remain disputable.

One component conveying the theme of the brutality of war, found universally in Paths of Glory, Born on the Fourth of July, and All Quiet on the Western Front are the depictions of the extreme losses afflicting their respective characters. One of the most prominent examples of brutality from Kubrick’s film is the storming of the Ant Hill. Preceding the attack, Kubrick follows Dax (Kirk Douglas) as he walks through the trenches, passing the motionless soldiers, who only flinch when bombs detonate around them. The point-of-view alternates between filming from Dax’s perspective and from a medium-shot of Dax as he walks; through each perspective, the camera moves forward at the speed of Dax’s gait. These shots lead the viewer to identify with Dax, increasing the tangibility of the battle when he enters it as a soldier, preparing viewers to recognize the hypocrisy and the abusiveness behind the accusations of cowardice the High Command will later assert against the 701st regiment. The battles itself begins when the howling explosions are overridden by Dax’s whistle and the shouts of the men as the crawl up the sides of the trenches. The exclusive use of these sounds (as compared to the massive scores found throughout Born on the Fourth of July) aid in the film’s realism. As the men fight, Kubrick continues to follow Dax as he creeps through the dirt mounds, varying in distance from the colonel so the viewer can see the loss of life around him; “The attack itself is a grotesque…stumbling walk to death” (Burgess 7). These depictions of death are essential to establishing the brutality of combat in World War I; the most impactful of these descriptions during the storming of the Ant Hill is that of a French body falling into the trenches and onto Dax as he tries to climb back into the battle field after demanding that Lieutenant Roget’s men enter combat. This provides evidence that the soldiers are not failing because of cowardice, but because of the impossibility of the attack and validates this as the reasoning behind the absence of Roget’s men. These notions will also prove to be significant in contextualizing the futility of the High Command’s orders and the extent to which they abuse their powers when they choose to execute three men, as if the soldiers were the cause of the attack’s failure. All Quiet on the Western Front features similar scenes of soldiers dying needlessly while on the battlefield; although several characters perish throughout the film (such as Kemmerich, the soldier stabbed by Paul [Lew Ayers], and eventually Paul himself) the most needless and painful of these deaths is arguably that of Behn, who is blinded and then killed by an explosion entering the battlefield for the first time to help the 2nd company string wires. As Kat (Lewis Wolheim) warns them of the possibility of shellfire, they creep over the mounds of dirt as if they were entering combat. As they pitch a post for the wire, a series of explosions occurs and the men run through the mounds looking for safety. The detonations are only interrupted when Behn (Walter Browne Rogers) begins to screech about the loss of his vision, his reaction ostensibly demonstrating the extremity of his pain. Almost as soon as he begins screaming, the explosions are replaced by pops of gunfire and Behn goes silent; the 2nd company subsequently find him dead. Behn’s death is futile because, hypothetically, the task of stringing the wire is not inherently dangerous. Compared to most of the deaths and injuries sustained by characters in Paths of Glory and Born on the Fourth of July, which are occur during definitionally dangerous battles, the men would not necessarily be in danger if it weren’t for the attacks launched by their enemies. However, Behn’s death outside of combat serves to demonstrate the brutality of war because it signifies that the men can be killed at any point while on the warfront.

Born on the Fourth of July is similar to the World War I films in that Kovic sustains a gruesome injury during combat, a bullet through the chest that leaves him paralyzed; however, the emotional impact of the war’s brutality also forces Kovic to sacrifice his relationship with his family when they fail to support him through this turmoil. The breakdown of Kovic’s relationship with his family is depicted as a sacrifice stemming from the Vietnam War and serves as an epiphany in which Kovic identifies the futility of the for which these sacrifices were made. The culmination of these notions resides in the scene in which Kovic has returned home from a bar, drunk and disorderly. Stone follows Kovic as his father rolls him through the house to his bedroom while he rambles about the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War and Christianity. Stone briefly breaks from shots inside the house to a pan of its exterior, demonstrating the intensity of Kovic’s rage by keeping the volume of their voices the same level as from inside the house and revealing that several neighbors have turned on their lights to listen to the chaos. Quite literally, Stone visually portrays the darkness of Kovic’s epiphany with the shots of him rolling through shadows so dark they obscure his face; despite the fact that every family member is now awake in the house, no turns on a single light (see fig. 3). Contrary to several other dramatic scenes from the film, there is no score behind playing behind Kovic’s rambling, preventing such theatrics from interfering with the verbal content of Kovic’s insightful, yet vulgar epiphany. This is juxtaposed with the reaction of his mother, who is more concerned with her son’s drunkenness and behavior rather than the reasons for which he is upset. Her concerns are significant as she was supportive of his decision to join the military, especially compared to the hesitation of his father (who is a veteran himself); now that he has returned home, she is unable to deal with the consequences of her actions and instead wishes to rid her house of her son rather than help him cope with his trauma. Succeeding this scene, Kovic travels to Mexico and his family are absent from the rest of the film.

The brutality of war is also highlight through the illustration of the characters of Born on the Fourth of July and All Quiet on the Western Front as victims of the cultural phenomenon that entice these figures to go to war in the first place. In particular, both films use parades to represent the warmongering culture that bolsters the desires of Kovic and Paul to fight in their respective wars. American culture succeeding World War II was permeated by glorification of war and anti-communist sentiments that appeared in even innocuous elements of domestic life (a notion that would contribute to Kovic’s belief in the alleged righteousness of fighting in Vietnam) (Davis 8). The parade in Born on the Fourth of July demonstrates these effects through its melodrama, which represents this overwhelming American nationalism (Davis 11). A marching band performs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as Stone introduces the parade with a crane shot, swooping down through the cheerleaders to the a young Kovic sitting on the shoulders of his father standing in the crowd. The music then abruptly changes to another distinctly American song, “Rock Around the Clock,” which complements the shots of other patriotic motifs: clowns passing out miniature flags, greasers, and the appropriated face of a native American used as the symbol for the fire department. These symbols culminate with the depiction of the World War II veterans marching the parade. Kovic excitedly points at them as they pass, but Stone arguably uses these men to introduce the first implication of his anti-war sentiments, conveyed by the slowing of time and replacement of the patriotic songs with a somber, dramatic score. Kovic still subtly smiles at them as they pass, but they will later be revealed to be a foreshadow of Kovic’s tortured future (Davis 9). Differing from the patriotism of Stone’s parade, the parade of Milestone’s film solely depicts a parade of German soldiers, lauded with cheers from spectators lining the streets. This specifically emphasizing the glamour of the military, rather than the nationalism as whole as depicted in Born on the Fourth of July. However, Milestone still employs patriotic music to imply its inherent relationship with the military, similar to the song used at the beginning of Stone’s parade. The parade also serves as the background to the introduction of Himmelstoss (John Wray), a post officer who smiles as he speaks of his enlistment in the military as a Sergeant. Milestone displays the grandeur of the parade, including the quantity of citizens watching it and the quantity and rigid uniformity of the soldiers marching in it through long shots and crane shots. The scenes of the parade are concluded with a still shot framed by a window, the camera then zooming out from the parade to reveal Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) inside of the building giving a passionate speech about why his students should join the war effort. This serves to connect the parade with Kantorek’s robustly patriotic sentiments, which serves to illustrate the glory described in Kantorek’s speech. Most significantly, it is after the professor’s speech that the characters decide to join World War I. It is also worth noting that Kovic is conditioned into supporting the military from lectures delivered at his school.

As opposed to depicting the abuses of those who influenced the soldiers to enlist in the military, Kubrick delineates the attempt to take the Ant Hill and the executions of the men as futile because they are the results of Mireau and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) abusing their power, as they attempt to develop, and then defend, their careers. The tragedies of the film and their causes are particular examples to convey the universal worthlessness of war: “The order to attack and its rationale, the assault, the court martial and the actions of Mireau all highlight the brutality of military incompetence” (Kelly 224). Kubrick constantly reminds the viewer of this futility through a number of literal “paths” taken by various characters throughout the film, including the one taken as the 701st regiment storms the Ant Hill; “None of these walks gets anybody anywhere; all the paths end in death or frustration, or simply getting back where you started from” (Burgess 7). Additionally, Kubrick highlights the hypocrisy of Mireau to illustrate his abusive behavior. In preparation for the attack on the Ant Hill, Kubrick films Mireau walking through the trenches to speak with the men, creating a scene that is reminiscent of the aforementioned walk with Dax when he is preparing to launch the assault. However, Kubrick minimizes the audience’s identification with Mireau by shooting him from a greater distance than that used to shoot Dax; additionally, Kubrick never films point-of-view shots from Mireau’s perspective as he does from Dax (see fig. 1; see fig. 2). As bombs explode around the edges of the trenches, Mireau reveals his greenness on the warfront when he reacts with the greatest fear by jumping and ducking with vigor as compared to the reactions of the soldiers, despite later assertions that he’s so active within the war that he’s never at his desk to sign papers requiring his approval. When paired with the battle scenes depicting the vigor of the soldiers’ efforts, these elements serve to contextualize the hypocrisy and abuse of the High Command in their abuse of the soldiers as scapegoats for their failures.
It is plausible to believe that, in addition to the anti-war sentiments expressed in all three films, they are also connected in their goal of using “image-events” (or, visuals that epitomize the themes of a narrative) to memorably convey these themes to the audience (Guillen 43). While these films each contain multiple instances of such scenes, some of the most significant examples encapsulating the brutality of war include Dax’s return to the trenches when a corpse falls on him, Kovic crying as he drunkenly rejects the values he once championed, and the scene in which Paul stabs an Allied soldier and must lay in the hole with the man until he dies. However, the specific goals each filmmaker strives to achieve with the inclusion of these visuals (besides the development of the same anti-war sentiments within the viewer) is variable. Kubrick and Milestone do not clearly reveal how they expect viewers to act upon the sentiments developed in their films. This is particularly true of Paths of Glory, given that Kubrick sought to change the narrative to include a positive ending in which Ferolles (Timothy Carey), Arnaud (Jow Turkel), and Paris (Ralph Meeker) are not executed but issued a 30-day jail sentence for their alleged cowardice (Kelly 216). Kubrick reportedly wanted the film to be profitable, and studios were already hesitant about it due to its lack of romantic relationship and its black and white footage (Kelly 216). It was Kirk Douglas who demanded that Kubrick retain the execution scene present in the titular novel on which the film is based, and thus ensured that the film conveyed an evident anti-war message; it was also his involvement in the project that garnered the film’s funding (Kelly 217). Kelly quoted Douglas as saying that the inclusion of this scene resulted in “…a truly great film with a truly great theme: the insanity and brutality of war” (Kelly 217). It is worth noting that Kubrick had already depicted anti-war themes in his first film Fear and Desire, and regardless of who made what decisions in the film’s narrative, “…Paths of Glory is undeniably a film which opposes war” (Kelly 220). Still, despite the fact that the aforementioned scenes and “image-events” clearly insinuate the themes described by Douglas, this context introduces the question of whose beliefs take precedent when the intentions of a director do not parallel the meaning derived from film analysis and viewership. The potential conflict between a director’s intentions and the interpretation of their work is absent from Born on the Fourth of July as Stone eschews the nebulousness of Kubrick and Milestone for clarity in his intentions to “…fix the real Vietnam experience in public memory,” identify the sacrifices made by veterans, and perpetuate and motivate viewers to participate in the anti-war movements that stemmed from the conflict in Vietnam (Davis 9, 12, 14).

Another significant component of war films is their accuracy in illustrating their respective conflicts, especially given that they depict actual events and may strive to instill specific sentiments about these events within viewers, including those who may not have a previously established understanding of the event. Compared to its intentions, the realism of Born on the Fourth of July is much less clear, and the context in which it may be defined as accurate is also debatable (Davis 7). The film is based upon Kovic’s novel delineated his experience in the Vietnam War, and Stone’s film serves as an inquiry into the Vietnam War and its impact on veterans and Americans, as he “…frames [it] around a historical problem, addresses critical questions about the American experience, and offers an interpretation of the recent past that approaches that found in academic scholarship” (Davis 7). Two of the biggest factors that inhibit the accuracy of Stone’s film are his manipulative reductionism and the melodrama he employs in creating his “image-events” (Davis 7). Accusations of Stone’s abuse of the black-and-white fallacy primarily lie in his depiction of presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as warmongers, while entirely ignoring Lyndon B. Johnson’s contributions of the war (Davis 13). Alternatively, Davis implies that such simplifications may be acceptable as “The usual moviegoer does not relish a rendition of complex historical events…” (Davis 10). The scenes from the VA hospitals are potentially the greatest examples of the fictional-realistic dichotomy that perpetuates throughout Born on the Fourth of July. From the moment Kovic is wheeled into the clinic located on the airfield, to the scene before Kovic finally returns home after breaking his leg, the hospitals are depicted as squalid and the workers as apathetic. In the clinic, Stone depicts an anonymous soldier entering cardiac arrest; in the VA hospital, Stone depicts the unsanitary disposal of biological waste [see figure of the clinic; see figure of the hospital]. However, Davis’ analysis of these scenes summarizes the lack of clarity regarding the accuracy of Stone’s melodrama:

The gruesome, unfortunate realism of the hospital scenes in Born, in fact, forced merits from Stone’s toughest critics, and other veterans have testified to the atrocities of the Bronx facility. While its extreme inhuman conditions were not representative of most VA hospitals, they were the product of a gov’t system that…was long on bureaucracy and short on supplies and sympathy. (11-12).
The resolution to the fictional-realistic dichotomy created in Born on the Fourth of July may lie in the notion that Stone strives to capture the emotional experience surrounding the Vietnam war (or, as Stone describes, “‘the truth of Vietnam’”) rather than a literal depiction of Ron Kovic’s life (Davis 12).

Comparatively, the accurate depiction of World War I is a highlight of both Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front (Kelly 218; Wallin 123). Both films are bolstered by the realism of the novels on which they are based: the claims in Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory are substantiated by newspaper clippings archived by the author; Universal purchased the rights to Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front on account of its “objective realism and authenticity” (Kelly 224; Wallin 123). Most significant to Paths of Glory’s realism is that the attack on the Ant Hill serves to essentially recreate an actual campaign issued by the French military. In April 1917, French officer Robert Nivelle launched an offensive in Champagne in which the troops were expected to advance six miles in a day but instead only progressed 600 yards, similar to Mireau’s outlandish command for the 701st regiment to take the Ant Hill (Showalter). Nivelle’s “fantastic predications” lead to a decline to French morale and an increase in French mutinies whenever the soldiers had to enter the trenches (Showalter). Just as Mireau and Broulard use Ferolles, Arnaud, and Paris as scapegoats for their failed decisions, Nivelle and the High Command sought to protect themselves by labeling their shortcoming to “seditious propaganda” (Showalter). Comparatively, Universal spent thousands of dollars importing authentic uniforms and Germany military equipment to the Southern California filming location to increase the film’s realism (Wallin 125). The atrocity of the Western Front was so authentic that the health inspectors had shut down the set due to safety concerns (Wallin 125). Variety issued reviews for both films in which their accurate portrayal of World War I, complimenting the “butchery” depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front and the “…starkly realistic recital of French army politics” of Paths of Glory (Kelly 218; Wallin 123). Both films are also complimented for the realism of their battle scenes, with their barren landscapes covered in hole filled with water, and rows of wooden posts holding up barbed wire (Kelly 224). They are not only similar to each other but remarkably similar to shots of actual World War I battle fields (see fig. 4; see fig. 5; see fig. 6). Regardless, both films provide viewers with “…a viewpoint that no soldier has ever had on any battlefield” and the accuracy of any film may be inhibited the medium’s potential impossibility to serve as a “…window [opened] onto reality” (Sorlin 263).

The consequences stemming World War I and the Vietnam War proved to be fertile inspiration for the filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Milestone, and Oliver Stone who berated the effects of these conflicts. Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and Born on the Fourth of July are all examples of anti-military films that highlight the brutality of war and the repercussions stemming from abuse of influence and power by those who supported these wars.

Works Cited
Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick.” Film Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 1964, pp. 4–11.- Pierre article
Davis, Jack E. “New Left, Revisionist, In-Your-Face History: Oliver’ Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July Experience.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. 28, 1998, pp. 6–17.
Guillen, Michael. “Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts.” Cineaste, 2015, pp. 42–45. Kelly, Andrew. “The Brutality of Military Incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957).” Historical
Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1993, pp. 215–227.
Radio &Television Film&Television
Literature Index with Full Text.
Showalter, Dennis E, and John Graham Royde-Smith. “World War I.” Encyclopedia Britannica,
Encyclopedia Britannica.
Wallin, Zoe. “‘Better Not to Die at All’.” Screen Education, no. 91, 2018, pp. 122–128. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost.

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