The movie itself begins with General Mireau ordering Col. Dax and his 701 regiment to launch a suicidal attack on the ‘anthill’, a heavily defended hill. While Dax himself is sure that this will only result in more losses to the French army without any effect on its position or relevance in the bigger context, the General is driven by his political ambition to get promoted (which he is promised by his superiors). The attack itself is a failure of catastrophic consequences where the French regiment, taking huge losses manage only to go a few yards beyond their own trenches. In fact, the French were so outnumbered by the Germans that the second wave of soldiers don’t even make it out of their own trenches and most of them die even before they take a few steps out.
Mireau who is enraged and wants to shift the blame from himself, accuses the regiment of being cowardly. He in fact, goes ahead and orders his own artillery to open fire on the French trenches and kill the men, but the artillery commander refuses to fire on his own men without explicit written instructions. This further enrages the General who immediately decides to publicly execute soldiers to make an example of them.
Three men supposedly chosen at random, are selected for the execution. The reality being that one of them is chosen as his commanding officer has a ‘personal vendetta’ against him, one of them chosen because he is ‘socially undesirable’ and the last one chosen randomly by lot, despite him having won personal accolades for his courage in the face of the enemy. Although Dax defends the men during the Court Martial, he is prevented from presenting any evidence which proves that these men were not cowards and this trial was a mockery of justice. Even his closing plea, “Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime to haunt each of you till the day you die.” falls on deaf ears and the men are prosecuted. Dax even tries privately to get the execution cancelled by approaching superior officers with General Mireau’s orders to fire on his own men, but fails to convince them that Mireau was running his own personal agenda using the 701 regiment.
While the movie itself has no unpredictable twists and turns and pretty much follows a simple narrative, some of the scenes and incidents depicted in the movie makes one think long and hard about the mindset of soldiers in a war. How Col. Dax goes great lengths to prevent his loyal men from being declared cowards and executed speaks volumes about how an ideal leader should never give up on his men. How the men react to their last meal, and their acceptance of their inevitable deaths also makes for interesting scenes in the movie. The men’s faith in God, their fear of death, all of these are brought to the fore in the last few scenes before the execution.
All in all, a uniquely refreshing war movie, which deals more with the soldiers and their feelings rather than the war itself. A must-watch movie, at least once.