The camera traces the morning-air tension of doomed troops about to leap into No Man's Land slaughter, and, since it's Stanley Kubrick on the other side of the lens, the trenches have been fastidiously widened for the tracking shots. A writhing battlefield is a gift for an upstart molding his graduation project, so Kubrick dutifully telescopes All Quiet on the Western Front as a sucession of implacable lateral wide shots -- an impossible attack on the fortified German post tagged the "Ant Hill." It's France, 1916, colonel Kirk Douglas reminds villainously scarred superior George Macready the mission is an absurd waste of life, yet the general cares only about adding a new star to his uniform, Samuel Johnson quote or not. The battle wraps, and a trio of spacegoats is demanded for cowardice. Douglas handles defense at their trial, but these three are cooked from the very start: Ralph Meeker is wise to a botched maneuver, Timothy Carey is a "social undesirable," while Joseph Turkel, illustrating the director's view of war as a microcosm of the absurdity of life, picked the wrong straw. Dissolves over nocturnal barbed-wire culminate in a jump-cut to a smoldering corpse, but serpentine movement is Kubrick's main gambit, leeching off a waltzing ball's luxury then stilling itself for a portentous tableau -- a chateau looming in foreshortened composition, deep-focus on frozen guards and marble diagonals, anchored by Carey's hulking grotesquerie in the fore. (The execution's grinding montage gets spiked with further hints of the absurd: the prisoner's stretcher, tied to the pole before the fusillade, offs the symmetry.) Seething with outrage, Douglas declares himself "ashamed to be a member of the human race;" this angry anti-war tract, however, left young Godard unimpressed, who (ouch!) evoked Stanley Kramer. Weathered faces are made moist by wobbly tavern warbling (complete with zoom into tear), although Kubrick's stand-in, even this early, isn't humanitarian Douglas but Adolphe Menjou's cynical general, forerunner of upcoming military caricature, but also supreme overseer of futility, puppeteering characters' lives in, out, and through camera patterns. Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson adapted from Humphrey Cobb's novel. Cinematography by Georg Krause. With Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Bert Freed, Emile Meyer, Kem Dibbs, and Christiane Kubrick. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce