Macready, George

Macready, George
   George Macready was born in Providence, Rhode Island, August 29, 1899, and attended Brown University with a view to becoming a journalist. But film director Richard Boleslawski persuaded him to become an actor. He started out on the stage, and his first role on Broadway was in The Scarlet Letter in 1926; thereafter he often costarred with Katharine Cornell. When he got into films in the early 1940s, he was usually the villain, as in Gilda (1946), in which he played Rita Hayworth’s vile husband, and as the abortionist in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), opposite KIRK DOUGLAS.
   Macready, trained in the theater, had a resonant voice that was perfect for his role as the powerhungry General Mireau in STANLEY KUBRICK’s PATHS OF GLORY (1957). Furthermore, he had a scar on his right cheek, sustained in an auto accident;Kubrick had the makeup artist accentuate the scar on Macready’s face to make Mireau look all the more menacing. Paths of Glory is set in France in 1916, during World War I. General Broulard (ADOLPHE MENJOU) visits General Mireau in the sumptuous château that is his headquarters. Broulard pressures Mireau to order his troops to attack the Ant Hill, a strongly fortified enemy position. Mireau at first hesitates when he hears about the contemplated onslaught on the Ant Hill, though Broulard assures him that he is the only man who can see it through. “You know the condition of my troops,” Mireau explains. “My division has been cut to pieces. We are not in a position to hold the Ant Hill, let alone take it. ” Broulard wheedles Mireau into accepting the challenge by indicating that there will be a promotion in it for him if his men accomplish this objective. Having displayed token concern for his troops, Mireau’s tone gradually shifts to one of determination: “Nothing is beyond them once their fighting spirit is aroused. We might just do it!” Mireau finally agrees to the Ant Hill attack, for it will be Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who will have to lead the attack. Mireau marches through the trenches on his way to inform Dax of his mission, stopping awkwardly along the way to buck up the men’s spirits as he passes by. He is oblivious to the squalor in which they live, an ugly contrast to the splendor of the château which he has just left. It is a matter of record that the trenches used in World War I were laid with wooden planks which served as a floor. Kubrick was consequently able to wheel his camera down the length of an entire trench just ahead of George Macready, thereby getting the whole scene in a single take. “Hello, soldier, ready to kill more Germans?” the general asks condescendingly each time he pauses en route. “Are you married?” he asks Private Ferol. “No? Well then, I bet your mother is proud of you. ”“Looking over your rifle, soldier?” he inquires of Corporal Paris. “Good; it’s a soldier’s best friend. You be good to it and it will be good to you. ”As he moves on, he next encounters Private Arnaud and thus has seen, without realizing it, the three men whose lives he will later seek to sacrifice to save his own reputation. When he asks another, older soldier if he is married, the man stammers,“My wife—I’m never going to see her again. I’m going to be killed. ” Mireau’s friendly façade immediately cracks, and he strikes the man, a gesture that brings to mind General George Patton’s controversial slapping of a soldier in an army hospital during World War II. A sergeant who is standing by suggests to Mireau that the man is suffering from shell shock and Mireau—again, like General Patton—bristles in return, “There’s no such thing as shell shock! I want the immediate transfer of this baby out of my division. I won’t have my men contaminated by him. ”
   To round out the irony of the scene, Mireau’s aide, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), says to Mireau as they reach Colonel Dax’s quarters,“These tours of yours have an incalculable effect on the fighting spirit of the men. In fact, their spirit derives from them. ” Mireau smiles in agreement and, as a shell explodes overhead, fastidiously brushes falling debris from his immaculate cape.
   If Mireau is out of place in the world of the trenches, Dax belongs to it in a way that no officer living in the remote world of the château can. Mireau has to stoop to enter Dax’s dark, shabby quarters, and quips patronizingly to him, “Quite a neat little spot you’ve got here. ” Dax offers Mireau a straight-backed chair, but Mireau refuses it, stating grandly that he remains always on the move. “I cannot understand these armchair generals behind a desk, waving papers at the enemy, worrying that a mouse might run up their leg. ” “With a choice of mice or Mausers,” Dax notes, not without sarcasm,“I would take the mice every time. ”
   Mireau looks at the Ant Hill through binoculars, which is as close as he and his fellow generals ever get to the field of battle. “It’s not something we can grab and run away with,” he mutters, “but it certainly is pregnable. ” He does not notice the hastily bandaged casualties passing by him at that moment, a portent of the severe losses that will be sustained during the attack on the Ant Hill.
   Using the same methods to get Dax to acquiesce to the plan that Broulard had used on him, Mireau begins by complimenting him on his record in the army and even recalls his success as a criminal lawyer in civilian life. Then he gets down to business and informs Dax that his men are to take the Ant Hill the following morning. He proceeds to outline his estimate of the projected casualties as if he were reeling off batting averages:“Five percent of the men will be lost going over the top, another five percent in reaching the enemy’s wire, let’s say another twenty-five percent in actually taking the Ant Hill. And we will still have enough men left to keep it. ”
   When the stunned Dax points out that nearly half of his men are calculated to die, Mireau offers him the meager consolation that those who are killed will allow others to advance and that the Ant Hill will at long last change hands. Dax is decidedly unimpressed by the general’s exhortation about carrying out the attack in the name of France and tells him so, ending with a reference to Samuel Johnson’s renowned observation that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Mireau explodes, attacking Dax in his most vulnerable spot, just as Broulard had done to him; in Dax’s case, however, it is not the tantalizing suggestion of promotion but rather the threat that he will be separated from his men. Shaken, Dax capitulates: “If anyone can take the Ant Hill, we can. ” “And when you do,” Mireau adds with a flourish, “you men will have a long rest. ”
   Just before the battle is to begin at dawn, Mireau once more scans the objective through binoculars and offers his aides a swig of cognac in anticipation of victory. Dax now makes the same journey, from one end of the trench to the other, that Mireau made earlier, and the contrast is striking. As Dax gives a reassuring glance to his men, it is clear that there is a mutual respect between officer and men of which there was no hint when Mireau made his earlier tour.
   Dax leads the attack on the Ant Hill, which is a disaster. The soldiers who leave the trenches are cut down almost immediately. To make matters worse, some of the troops cannot even leave the trenches because of merciless enemy shelling, as the attack turns into a rout and a retreat.
   There is a shot of the battlefield as seen through binoculars, which provides a transition that leads us back to the command post where Mireau is watching the proceedings. Kubrick once more reminds the audience that field glasses are the generals’ only contact with the scene of the hostilities. Mireau searches the horizon for the troops that are supposed to constitute the next wave of the attack. “Miserable cowards, they’re still in the trenches!” He calls Captain Rousseau, the battery commander, on the field telephone and orders him to fire on the men who are still in the trenches. “They have mutinied,” he maintains, “by refusing to advance. ” On the other end of the telephone line, Captain Rousseau respectfully requests that the general put his order in writing: “Suppose you were killed, General. Then where would I be?”“You’ll be in front of a firing squad in the morning. Place yourself under arrest and report to my headquarters,” Mireau screams and slams down the receiver.
   Mireau is informed that the attack has failed all along the line. His eyes blaze and light falls across the scar on his cheek that serves as a symbol of his mutilated personality. He roars apoplectically that he will convene a general court-martial for 3 P. M. “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they will face French ones!”
   For the first time in the movie we see Dax in the unreal world of the château, listening impassively as Broulard and Mireau bicker over the number of soldiers who should be shot to serve as an example to the rest of the troops. Aware that the two generals are bargaining with the lives of the men, Dax tries to reason with them.
   On the wall behind Mireau as he talks is a pastoral painting, an emblem of the romantic decor with which he has surrounded himself in his medieval palace, so distant from the harsh realities of the trench warfare. This attitude enables him to speak now like a warrior from some heroic epic of yore: “It was the duty of the men to obey orders whether they thought they were possible or not. If it were impossible to take the Ant Hill, the only proof would be their dead bodies lying in the trenches. The whole rotten regiment is scum; a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs. It’s an incontestable fact. ” Broulard directs Mireau to settle for a token number of soldiers to be shot and be done with it. He is delighted with Mireau’s concession to have each company commander select one man from the first wave of the attack, three in all. Despite Mireau’s protests to the contrary, Broulard appoints Dax to defend the accused.
   The court-martial is a mere charade and ends with the three defendants sentenced to be executed by a firing squad. That night, Dax learns of Mireau’s order to Captain Rousseau to fire on the men who were still in the trenches. He confronts Broulard with Rousseau’s sworn statement. Broulard disregards Dax’s charges for the moment, and personally attends the execution with Mireau.
   There is a shot of Mireau and Broulard looking on in stern dignity, and then Kubrick’s camera moves behind the members of the firing squad to record their blast of bullets as the three victims in the distance crumple forward in death. Kubrick cuts from the barrage of gunfire to the clatter of silverware, as Mireau exults at breakfast about the wonderful way that the men died, for he is the god on the altar of whose ego the three hapless soldiers were sacrificed. “I’m glad you could be there, George,” he says to Broulard. “These things are always grim, but this one had a kind of splendor. ” Mireau even feels expansive enough to compliment Dax, who has just arrived, on how well his men died.
   With studied nonchalance, Broulard informs Mireau that he is to be relieved of his command and to be subject to an inquiry into his behavior during the failed attack on the Ant Hill. Mireau, of course, is outraged that Broulard, who instigated the plan of attack on the Ant Hill, is going to let Mireau take the fall for the whole affair.
   “I have one last thing to say to you, George,” says Mireau, throwing down his napkin. “The man that you stabbed in the back is a soldier. ” He retreats from the camera, stalking toward the door at the opposite end of the room, his diminishing figure a visual metaphor for his irretrievable loss of status. Presumably he will do the “proper thing” and blow his brains out, once more vindicating the inflexible military code of honor. Macready brought Mireau to life in a stunning and savage performance. He continued to act in films after Paths of Glory, playing a host of unsympathetic characters for another decade, although one of his last parts was not a villain, but the role of U. S. diplomat Cordell Hull in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1971), about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
   ■ Klawans, Stuart, “The First World War Changed Movies,” New York Times, November 19, 2000, sec. 2, pp. 13, 24;
   ■ Wicker,Tom,“World War I,” in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), pp. 186-191.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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