Of the many fictional heroes of World War II, no one looms larger than Captain America. When Timely Comics introduced Captain America in 1940, there was no irony to his stars and stripes, his patriotism or his Boy Scout values. In the middle of an unambiguous war against evil that sort of thing can work.
But when the‘50s gave way to the atomic bomb, consumer culture and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Captain America just didn’t have a place. Except for a failed revival in 1953, Captain America didn’t appear once in the span of an entire decade.
Then, by some strange stroke of genius in 1964, Stan Lee reintroduced Captain America to the world. Lee took this shining light of patriotism and brought him into an America in the midst of a monumental cultural change, when the civil rights movement and the death of JFK and Vietnam and psychedelics appeared to be changing everything. Stan Lee had the Avengers discover a frozen Captain America and when they thawed him out, the hero found himself in a world he never made, a soldier untainted by the complexities of the contemporary world. Stan Lee saw that Captain America could play a powerful counterpoint to the America of the 60s.
The movie incarnation of Captain America will get to that, no doubt, when Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie comes out next year. For now we’ve got a movie about Captain America in all of his patriotic glory. If that story works in the morally labyrinthine world of 2011, it will work because World War II shines with moral simplicity. World War I…not so much.
Everyone knows why World War II started. Nobody can explain why World War I started, even if they know it had something to do with a Scottish Post-Punk band called Franz Ferdinand. Or maybe that was an Austrian Archduke. Who knows, the point is that while World War II is the pop culture standard for good vs. evil, World War I is the pop culture standard for the absurdity of war, and no movie exemplifies this better than Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 masterpiece Paths of Glory.
World War II was all about tanks and fighter planes and troops marching across Europe, but World War I was all about the most boring and dangerous kind of fighting known to man: trench warfare. The voice-over that begins Paths of Glory describes the beginning of World War I as “a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way 500 miles from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. By 1916, after two grisly years of trench warfare the battle lines had changed very little. Successful attacks ewer measured in hundreds of yards and paid for in lives by the hundreds of thousands.”
Paths of Glory uses the plodding and casualty ridden nature of trench warfare to set up a series of moral dilemmas for officers and soldiers in a French regiment who have been ordered on a suicide run against the heavily fortified German position called Anthill. These decisions drive the officers to put a group of three men on trial for cowardice.
One of the great wonders of the film is the way Kubrick contrasts the blood and dirt of trench warfare with the gorgeous interiors of early 20th Century French architecture. The grunts live in mud while the offices recline in opulence. It is this contrast that sets up the morality tale that Kubrick aims to tell. War is a series of moral dilemmas, and Paths of Glory anatomizes those dilemmas with an aesthetic precision only Kubrick could attain.
It’s no coincidence that Paths of Glory premiered during a decade that had no interest in Captain America. I’m not sure what sort of world we’re living in right now. Maybe we need Captain America again; maybe we need an anatomy for the new morality of war. Either way, if you want to watch a genuinely great movie about the moral complexities of war, complete with action set-pieces and Kirk Douglas in his prime, Paths of Glory is the way to go