A great Samurai house in the early days of the Shogun’s rule and the French army during the 1st World War would tend not to be compared even by the most dexterous history student. Yet in Harakiri and Paths of Glory two of the finest anti-authoritarian films ever had those two as their subject. The Realpolitk principles of institutions are not constrained by time or borders.
Both films are stories about men injured by institutions for crimes they not commit with the protagonist being an advocate who goes against the organization. In Paths of Glory, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) is ordered by Gen. Mireau (George Macready) (as he was asked by Gen. Broulard [Adolphe Menjou) to lead his army in a suicide attack. After the attack fails, Mireau demands 3 scapegoats (haggled down from 100) to put in front of a kangaroo court. Dax defends his men in front of the tribunal. Harakiri tells its story more indirectly with multiple flashbacks. A ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) wanders into the Iyi house- a feudal home of the 1600s asking for a place to perform seppeku (that’s ritual suicide for you American speakin’ folks). The chamberlain Kaegyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) senses a scam and tells a story about what happen when a young samurai made the same offer earlier in hopes of getting a bit of money and being shown the door. Instead, the House forces the young samurai to perform the ritual with a wooden sword (the young man must pawned his steel) in brutal fashion. Hanshiro turns out to know the young man- knew him very well and he’s here for an apology and more.
Authority’s main interest is always appearance over substance. When Saito orders a cover-up for Tsgumo’s massacre at the end, it is so the house would not admit a ronin can killed members of his house. Of course, the facts declare the opposite but Saito understands appearing weak matters more than being weak. Being weak doesn’t lead to being attacked, others knowing you’re weak does. The French Army is attacking German positions not out of any military logic but to keep criticism away from them. A French officer’s career ends when the blame falls on them not when the Germans win. Gen. Broulard cannot comprehend Dax acting on principle instead of pragmatism, it would be like finding out someone refuses to eat.
Dax thought himself clever for finding a political trump to play against the general staff to do the right thing. Dax miscalculated though as General Mireau can be sacrificed as easily as any of his men. The institution will survive because always be ready to lose any one man and continue to work. The Iyi house can lose its three best swordsman without a great deal of care as long as the façade remains. The beauty of the system is that while everyone looks out for themselves and feed the organization to continue its existence, their selfishness means not one of them is important enough for the machine to care if they leave. What Ayn Rand never understood is that Capitalism laughs when John Galt leaves the system. He doesn’t want to play by the rules, well there’s someone out there who’s just as good who will. The popularity of Atlas Shrugs comes from the idea that one person can fight the system; that the reader really can change the world if they’re talented enough. Paths of Glory and Harakiri do not have time for such fairy tales. No one man can move the world, no matter how desperately the world needs them to do so.
“Many of us will be joining you soon.” The injustice this kangaroo court will be repeated many times over the rest of the war. Just as Iyi erasing history will continue ignorance and injustice, the French army will retain its power. There will be more foolhardy attacks against the German army, more men will die in vain, and the army’s authority will remain unchallenged. However, these institutions will be finally destroyed by powerful forces. The Iyi will have centuries of success ahead of them until the Meiji Restoration knocks them out of existence. The old nemesis Germany will mauled the French Army in the 2nd World War. Yet, they’re only replaced by different hierarchies with their own sins. Nazi Germany is far worse than the stuffed-shirts of the French military. The criticism made by the protagonists is true but will never change the deficiencies of systems. Systems are created to protect these deficiencies of the human spirit. These films are power by Hobbesian logic where cruel, greedy men will destroy the earth unless constrained by customs, laws, and organizations that can work as counterweights.
“The World does not bend to sentimental tales,” says Tsgumo. A friendly little comment on these types of films. Institutions have always won these fights and when they’re put out of business, it’s by a different institution. General Broulard isn’t scared of Dax, he’s worried about “the newspapers and the politicians.” More so than any threat the Germany army holds. Both films end on futility because their own efforts were obviously going to be futile. However, Harakiri allows a more satisfying if very bleak ending for its protagonist of what society has done to him.
While the ending satisfies the anti-war message of the film, Dax’s journey ends in a lurch. He has seen the system failed only to return to the job to do the best he can. While this might be the realistic outcome where the victims spit out by authority has nothing better than to return to it, there’s something to say for Harakiri’s call for personal honor even if it will be forgotten. After showing an institution’s hypocrisy the protagonist can show he still has personal dignity. Futile effort can still have a meaning if it’s literally the only thing you can do to stop the machine.