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Six Degrees of Joe Turkel:
Paranoiac-Critical Reflections on Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

[1]4,031 words

Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson (based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb)
Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris,
Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel (as Joseph Turkel), Christiane Kubrick (as Susanne Christian), & Emile Meyer

“An actor who’s impressed me more times than I can remember without my knowing who he is.” — YouTube comment

“If you want to see the greatest movie ever made, see a picture called Paths of Glory. And I don’t get a nickel for saying that.” — Joe Turkel, Days of the Dead Horror Con 2014

Anyone who watches a lot of movies eventually starts saying, from time to time, something like, “Hey, it’s that guy!” Sometimes they’re “character actors” or “second bananas” who appear in dozens – sometimes hundreds – of films without achieving any “name recognition.” Others are now established stars, appearing in bit parts early in their careers: Lucille Ball with the Three Stooges, or Marilyn Monroe’s brief turn as a breathy ingénue in All About Eve.

My favorite “hey, it’s that guy” is Joe Turkel. He was in two of Kubrick’s ‘50s films in a row: The Killing (1956) and our titular subject, Paths of Glory (1957), but seems to have then spent most of his time in the aforementioned bit parts in mostly B-movies, leveraging his Brooklyn background and Second World War experience to service roles like “Benny the Blood” or “Soldier.”

By the early ‘60s he was playing “Nick, The Blackmailer,” a hipster/sailor/crook in William Castle’s sub-B flick Tormented [2] (1960); on MST3k they noted the resemblance to Lou Reed [3] in both appearance and “method”-style acting, making you kinda expect him to start humming something like “And the colored girls sing . . .”[1] [4]

By the ‘70s, he was still playing “Privates” and “Seamen” in various movies and TV shows, along with some roles with more interesting monikers like “Jake ‘Greasy Thumb’ Guzik” in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) or “Peyote” in Five Savage Men (1970). The latter sounds like a motorcycle flick, and may have been retitled to ride the Easy Rider wave, but it’s originally The Animals, a rape-revenge Western with Keenan Wynn (Col. “Bat” Guano in Kubrick’s Strangelove)[2] [5] and Henry Silva. Speaking of cycle flicks, 1973 brought a genuine one (also retitled, not once but twice): The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander [6] (1973), aka Cycle Psycho [7], and, to judge from the movie poster, aka Savage Abduction as well; Joe finally gets an actual first-billed, “starring” role in this one, a Troma production, no less.[3] [8] Alas, the sleazy murder/blackmail plot seems to have little to do with our favorite with a similar name, 1973’s Psychomania [9] (a.k.a. The Death Wheelers [10]).[4] [11]

Did this catch Kubrick attention?[5] [12] For whatever reason, in 1980 Kubrick suddenly reentered Joe’s career, calling him up to cast him as Lloyd the Bartender [13] in The Shining;[6] [14] the next year, he was Dr. Tyrell in Blade Runner.[7] [15] Oddly, rather than a George Burns or Jack Palance-like resurgence, his career pretty much stops there, although it seems Joe himself is still around, now age 92! I guess after memorable roles in two such iconic films,[8] [16] he just kinda retired and hung out at conventions [17]. “Hey, yeah, that’s me getting my skull crushed by Rutger Hauer. Yeah, your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.”[9] [18]

What a great career! Remember, kids, never give up!

So, what about Paths of Glory? Strangely, being a fan of both Kubrick and Turkel, I’d never seen it; so when it turned up on TCM, I resolved to check it out, if only to finally see good ol’ Joe’s performance. And what a performance! I had assumed that this would be another minor role but he ultimately dominates the last third, holding his own against, as we’ll see, some pretty big names, and delivers perhaps the most memorable moments in a film that is filled with great moments.

The Guardian, which picked this as the seventh-best “action and war film of all time” and “one of the darkest anti-war films ever made [19],” has a pretty good synopsis:

The place is the western front of the first world war, in a section manned by the French army. An attack is decreed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), and passed on to General Mireau (George Macready) to execute. Everyone knows the attack is doomed because infantry advancing over open ground torn apart by artillery barrages will be cut down by the machine guns in the secure German lines. But when the plan fails, Broulard determines that there must be scapegoats – alleged cowards or malingerers – who betrayed the national purpose. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who led the attack, is charged with picking three victims who will be subject to court martial and firing squad.[10] [20]

The best thing I can say about the film is that it’s so good, so well-made in all its parts, that it defeated my usual centrifugal, paranoiac-critic [21] film-watching habits, forcing me for once to just sit in amazement. One factor is that it’s a tight, incredible 88 minutes, almost a B-film in length if not budget, and thus appeals to my preference for works of the length of the Lovecraftian tale or James’ “dear, the blessed, nouvelle.”

Nevertheless, it’s a Kubrick film, and so it’s rich enough to suggest any number of associations, which is my task here now.

An early film in an oeuvre that would eventually comprise a spare thirteen films [22],[11] [23] we can already see many Kubrickian tropes and themes. One occurs right at the beginning, as Kubrick’s camera tracks backwards as a character – whom we will learn is Gen. Mireau, the commander of the French troops – stalks towards us [24]. In a few minutes (remember, just 88 minutes total!), this will be repeated, this time with his antagonist, Col. Dax, walking among his men prior to the signal to advance [25] (to certain death).

Thirty years later, Kubrick would repeat the trope in his only other war – or rather, anti-war — film, this time with Drill Sergeant Hartman introducing himself to the new recruits – or maggots – at the start of Full Metal Jacket [26].[12] [27] Arguably, we even can see it earlier, as Bowman advances toward his confrontation with HAL in 2001 [28]; a different kind of war.[13] [29]

Gen. Mireau is played by George Macready, whose gravelly voice was instantly recognizable – but from where? At first I thought he was the old guy in one of my favorite Twilight Zones – “The Masks” – but that turns out to be another guy [30]. Macready plays a pivotal role in what Trevor Lynch calls “the best movie ever made [31]”: Network. He’s a little younger here, of course, but one thing that renders him hard to identify is a bitchin’ dueling scar across his right cheek – I assume from dueling, due to the placement, but did the French military engage in this Prussian pastime?[14] [32] If so it provides an early hint of the message delivered at the end: the two sides are not much different, ordinary Pierres and Heinrichs with similar masters; perhaps hope lies in their common soldiers being equally the same [33].[15] [34]

One way they’re not different – one assumes, from cultural tropes, since no German soldiers are ever seen – is the hypertrophy of hierarchy. This is displayed (Kubrick knows: show, don’t tell)[16] [35] in the very beginning, as Mireau reviews his troops [36], delivering fake-hearty pep talks: We’re all in this together, I know you boys want to make me proud, and all the usual corporate bullshit:

General Mireau: Hello there, soldier. Ready to kill more Germans?

Private Ferol: Yes, sir.

General Mireau: What’s your name, soldier?

Private Ferol: Sir, Private Ferol, Company A.

General Mireau: Aha. You married, soldier?

Private Ferol: No, sir.

General Mireau: I’ll bet your mother’s proud of you.

Private Ferol: Yes, sir.

General Mireau: Carry on, Private, and good luck.

Private Ferol: Thank you, sir.[17] [37]

Later, however, we see Gen. Mireau discussing the upcoming battle [38] with Col. Drax like a combination of Gen. Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove:

Naturally, men are gonna have to be killed, possibly a lot of them. They’ll absorb bullets and shrapnel, and by doing so make it possible for others to get through . . . say, five percent killed by our own barrage – that’s a very generous allowance. Ten percent more again in no man’s land, and twenty percent more again into the wire. That leaves sixty-five percent, and the worst part of the job over. Let’s say another twenty-five percent in actually taking the Ant Hill – we’re still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.[18] [39]

At a later point we see what’s really involved:

General Broulard [40]: There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.[19] [41]

Indeed, “The men died wonderfully!” he crows over tea and delicate pastries at General Staff HQ. While the usual suspects delight in subsuming all hierarchy under this kind of thing, it is in reality what I’ve called a “false Männerbund”:

Like Captain Ahab, Capone uses the rhetoric of Traditional honor and leadership, but despite his “charisma” and “romantic aura” he is “. . . not just some fine old warrior-aristocrat who has somehow fallen into the wrong age. Ahab is just such a man as nineteenth century America was producing, a man who could and did ruthlessly exploit the land and the people for his own grandiose, self-aggrandizing ends.”[20] [42]

Even at this early moment, Gen. Mireau proves to be able to turn on a dime, and seems to be channeling Gen. Patton [43]:

Mireau: There is no such thing as shell shock!

Soldier: Yes, I have a wife . . . I’m never going to see her again. I’m going to be killed.

[Mireau slaps the soldier]

Mireau: Sergeant, I want you to arrange for the immediate transfer of this baby out of my regiment. I won’t have any of our brave men contaminated by him.

Hey, isn’t this a war movie? Make with the deaths already! We get a second reverse-angle long-shot as Col. Dax marches through the trenches, and then leads his troops into battle [44]. Again, with brilliant economy, Kubrick provides us only with the essential battle, the suicidal attack on the “Ant Hill, whose predictably disastrous outcome will spin the plot into a Caine Mutiny style courtroom scene, followed by an execution.

The black-and-white photography recalls the brief battle for Burpelson Air Force Base in Strangelove; the troops here would no doubt love to turn their fire on their own Gen. Ripper, who also indulges in the same phony sentimentality of “my boys” — as does the seemingly random gun and howitzer noise; the latter suggests, to me at least, the sound of the future battle at the start of The Terminator (Cameron, 1984). As for music, there is none, here or anywhere else (well, except for the song at the end), just a repetitive snare drum [45]; no heroic themes, an effect later employed, deliberately or not, in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, although it also somewhat recalls the ironic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” that accompanies Maj. Kong in Strangelove.

All too typically, we seem to have forgotten about Joe Turkel! His first scene, before the battle, [46] establishes him as an existentialist avant le lettre:

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: I’m not afraid of dying tomorrow, only of getting killed.

Soldier in Bunk: That’s as clear as mud.

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: Well, which would you rather be done in by: a bayonet or a machine gun?

Soldier in Bunk: Oh, a machine gun, naturally.

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: Naturally, that’s just my point. They’re both pieces of steel ripping into your guts, only the machine gun is quicker, cleaner, and less painful, isn’t it?

Soldier in Bunk: Yeah, but what does that prove?

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: That proves that most of us are more afraid of getting hurt than of getting killed. Look at Bernard. He panics when it comes to gas. Gas doesn’t bother me a bit. He’s seen photos of gas cases. Doesn’t mean anything to me. But I’ll tell you something, though, I’d hate like the devil to be without my tin hat. But on the other hand, I don’t mind not having a tin hat for my tail. Why is that?

Soldier in Bunk: You’re darn tootin’, because . . .

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: Because I know a wound to the head would hurt much more than one to the tail. The tail is just meat but the head – ah, the head is all bone.[21] [47]

Soldier in Bunk: That’s . . .

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: Tell me this. Aside from the bayonet, what are you most afraid of?

Soldier in Bunk: High explosives.

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: Exactly, and it’s the same with me, because, because I know that it can chew you up worse than anything else. Look, just like I’m trying to tell you, if you’re really afraid of dying, you’d be living in a funk all the rest of your life because you know you’ve got to go someday, any day. And besides . . .

Soldier in Bunk: Yes?

Pvt. Pierre Arnaud: If it’s death that you’re really afraid of, why should you care about what it is that kills you?

Soldier in Bunk: Oh, you’re too smart for me, Professor. All I know is, nobody wants to die.

But it’s his last scene [48] (not counting, as we’ll see, the execution), after being chosen as one of the three soldiers to be sacrificed as “cowards” to cover up the generals’ debacle,[22] [49] where Arnaud goes full Camus, outdoing Meursault’s confrontation with the priest at the end of The Stranger; while Meursault only has to angrily reject “an exacerbating visit from a priest offering supernatural solace,”[23] [50] here Arnaud spews blasphemy:

Look! This is my religion. Oh, great bottle, forgive me my sins, for now I lay me down to sleep. Bo-peep. May I drink of you first? Thank you. Amen.

. . . and then dispatches the chaplain with a roundhouse punch.[24] [51]

In more brilliantly off-center casting, the chaplain is played by another “hey, it’s that guy’: Emil Meyer. IMDB says:

Square-jawed, brutal-looking American character actor. Before working in films, he was variously employed as longshoreman, safety inspector, cab driver and insurance salesman. On screen invariably played heavies in westerns and crime melodramas.

And, if you didn’t get the hint, they add:

American character actor usually in nasty, nasty roles, marked by ruthlessness, domination or inflexibility.

He’ probably best known for “ruthless cattle baron Rufus Ryker” (IMDB) in Shane (1953) and, the same year as Paths, he’s Lt. Harry Kello, the crooked cop who plants drugs on Marvin Miller and beats the crap out of Tony Curtis at the end of Sweet Smell of Success. Like Turkel, by 1960 he’ll also be in a film deemed worthy of MST3k, The Girl in Lover’s Lane, where he’s the titular girl’s father, who (surprise) beats the crap out of Brett Halsey’s “Bix Dugan” (dubbed “Big Stupid” by Joel & the Bots).[25] [52]

Let’s just say Emil makes a formidable sky pilot, and though his vows forbid him from doing other than turning the other cheek, he certainly looks like he can take a punch. It’s up to one of Arnaud’s fellow condemned to deliver a Three Stooges kind of roundhouse that puts him hors de combat with a fractured skull. Not to worry, though; the ingenious French strap him onto a stretcher so as to stand him upright for execution [53].

Looking at this scene again, I realize for the first time that neither actor makes any attempt at diluting their Brooklyn accents, much less a French accent. Indeed, other than casting Adolphe Menjou (born in Pittsburgh, but somehow always projecting a Continental air),[26] [54] and the future Mrs. Kubrick (German actress Christiane Harlan, who brings tears to the eyes of the French while forced to sing a German folk song, “The Faithful Hussar”)[27] [55] solves the perennial problem of using American actors to play French characters by simply ignoring it. The quality of the acting makes the whole thing a non-issue.

And finally, the execution scene [56], which you should just watch.

In fact, you should just go watch the whole film; it’s the best 88 minutes you’ll ever spend (unless Counter-Currents produces an 88-minute podcast). If the anti-war angle offends your Rightist sensibilities – the French banned it until the ‘70s – then consider my suggestion that it’s really more of an anti-bureaucracy film; moreover, seen from a certain angle, it really has some funny moments, almost a tragicomedy, and you can see how Kubrick had the ability to amp up the comedy a bit in order to later take on nuclear Armageddon.

Above all, see it for Joe Turkel! You’ll find him at the start of a remarkable career that truly earned this video tribute [57].


[1] [58] Not to be confused with the 2009 British “slasher comedy” of the same name, Tormented is itself a wonderful example of how and why “bad” movies are so fascinating: Bert I. Gordon (“Big,” get it?) attempts to create a bleak, noir drama that incorporates his trademark crap forced-perspective and traveling matte “special effects”; imagine Double Indemnity with floating mannequin heads [59].

[2] [60] See “From Odd John to Strange Love [61]” in my collection Green Nazis in Space! New Essays on Literature, Art, & Culture [62], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015)

[3] [63] Also the last role for Stafford Repp, the “Chief O’Hara” of TV’s Batman.

[4] [64] See my “Evola on Wheels: Psychomania as Hermetic Initiation [65].”

[5] [66] I like to think of Kubrick in a London theater on a rainy afternoon, watching Devil Doll (1964), and suddenly jumping up and shouting not only “That’s my Heywood Floyd [67]!” as MST3k suggested, but also “And that’s Frank Poole’s dad [68]!”

[6] [69] He has the distinction of being one of only two actors (the other being Philip Stone [70]) to work with Kubrick as a credited actor three times.

[7] [71] Warning: scary scene [13]! A commenter aptly notes: “TV Tropes: ‘When your angry, vengeful creation is confronting you and demanding you perform a medical procedure on him, the correct answer is not to explain why that procedure would be fatal, it’s to perform it anyway.’” For more on the film from Counter-Currents, see Trevor Lynch’s “Blade Runner [72],” and on the original book, see Greg Johnson’s “Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Anti-Semitic/Christian-Gnostic Allegory [73].”

[8] [74] “Joe Turkel should have won an award as the Frankenstein-like creator [in Blade Runner],” says [75] The Breathing Dead blog.

[9] [76] And here’s Joe [77], “a liberal, progressive Democrat,” at the “Occupy Seattle” demonstration on October 21, 2011, speaking and then working the crowd.

[10] [78] Four years later, The Guardian again reviewed the film; Peter Bradshaw noted that [79] “[t]he resulting execution scene is like a nauseous non-crucifixion — three thieves without Christ or three Christs without a thief.” One of the three, Pvt. Ferol (whom we’ll soon meet) is played by legendary Hollywood heavy and nutcase Timothy Carey [80], who here bears, I think, a striking resemblance to John Turturro’s “The Jesus” in The Big Lebowski (Coen Bros., 1998); for more on Turturro, see Trevor Lynch’s review of Miller’s Crossing [81], reprinted in his Return of the Son of Trevor Lynch’s CENSORED Guide to the Movies [82], ed. by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[11] [83] Is AI a Kubrick film? I hope not.

[12] [84] I suppose Dr. Strangelove counts as well, another black-and-white film with generals discussing acceptable losses, but it’s always seemed to me to be more a satire of organizational madness rather than dealing with war itself, which in the film seems almost as abstract and unreal as today’s video-game drone strikes; this makes the literally climactic nuclear exchange so surprising: Hey, the bombs really did go off! Barry Lyndon is more of a satire of the eighteenth century in general, with pointless battles being only one aspect of a period that Kubrick seemed to take as his paradigm of elite cruelty.

[13] [85] The fancy meals leisurely consumed by the generals in their literally palatial HQ are echoed by Bowman’s Louis Seize dining room at the end. Another Guardian article [86] (they seem obsessed) notes that “[t]hat pre-1789 Versailles imagery – for Kubrick the distilled essence of a corrupt paradise built on bloodshed, poverty and suffering – would reappear in the last shot of A Clockwork Orange (‘I was cured all right!’), throughout Barry Lyndon (and presumably, the unmade Napoleon project), and in the coldly elegant room Bowman wakes up in after the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey [87].”

[14] [88] According to The Art of Manliness [89], “It was especially popular in France; 10,000 Frenchmen are thought to have died during a ten year period under Henry IV. The king issued an edict against the practice, and asked the nobles to submit their grievances to a tribunal of honor for redress instead. But dueling still continued, with 4,000 nobles losing their lives to the practice during the reign of Louis XIV.” Again, Kubrick’s favorite period to symbolize elite degeneracy.

[15] [90] “Hope lies with the proles.” — Orwell, 1984.

[16] [91] Turkel’s scene with Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, however, shows how two great actors can deliver sacksful of exposition and still make for a riveting scene.

[17] [92] This is the “soft sell.” Again, this will reappear in Full Metal Jacket: “What’s your name, scumbag?” This is Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, master of the “hard sell”: “Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard, but I am fair!” In modern, corporatized war, the old hierarchy is irrelevant: “There is no racial bigotry here! I do not look down on ****s, kikes, wops, or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless!” Trench war was, of course, very different than the chivalrous war in the air; see the essay on D’Annunzio in Jonathan Bowden: Extremists: Studies in Metapolitics [93]; ed. by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2016). There’s a tendency for audiences to identify with and root for Maj. Kong [94]; perhaps for that reason, Kubrick fell back on the infantry in FMJ. For another view of the nobility of the air, see Flasheart and von Richthofen, here [95]; for another view of morale-building in the trenches, see Gen. Melchett, here [96].

[18] [97] Compare: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But, I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

[19] [98] Compare General Patton: “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.” Patton (Schaffner, 1970).

[20] [99] See “’God, I’m with a heathen.’ The Rebirth of the Männerbund in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables [100],” reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture [101]; ed. by Greg Johnson; Second, Embiggened Edition (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017).

[21] [102] The helicopter gunship crew in Apocalypse Now has the opposite idea; they prefer to sit on their helmets, though perhaps not to protect their tails.

[22] [103] A humanistic compromise; Gen. Mireau originally proposed a hundred, Col. Dax suggests (ironically), “Why not the whole regiment?” Gen. Broulard considers three “very reasonable.”

[23] [104] See Greg Johnson, “A Leveling Wind: Reading Camus’ The Stranger [105],” reprinted in From Plato to Postmodernism [106] (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[24] [107] As Arnaud refuses the comfort of Christianity, he eerily references his famous “[y]our credit’s good here, Mr. Torrance” line from The Shining: “May I tell you something, Father? Back in my hometown, there was a certain little café . . . with an amusing sign over the bar. It read, ‘Do not be afraid to ask for credit, for our way of refusing is very polite.’”

[25] [108] Girl also includes an early role for Jack Elam, who plays a small-town psycho-stalker in a way that eerily suggests Garrison Keillor; this was driven home recently when Keillor was me-two’d [109]. You can enjoy the “best of” the episode here [110]. Elam also has a memorable role in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as a mob thug who tangles, to his regret, with Mike Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, who appears here as Cpl. Philippe Paris. See “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick: Kiss Me Deadly as Lovecraftian Tale [111],” reprinted in my collection The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture [112], ed. by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[26] [113] An odd choice for Kubrick as well; IMDB says, “Adolphe’s extreme hardcore right-wing Republican politics hurt his later reputation, as he was made a scapegoat for his cooperation as a ‘friendly witness’ at the House Un-American Activities Commission hearing during the Joseph McCarthy Red Scare era.”

[27] [114] This would be her last film, after marrying Kubrick, until appearing as “Woman Sitting Behind Dr. Harford at Café Sonata” in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).