Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory is a further reminder that fighting a war makes no logical sense – all of the senseless brutality, fear and anger toward others is proven by Kubrick. Featuring one sequence depicting the violent act, Kubrick portrays the hell of war on a different front, from those who hold total control from the luxurious rooms in well-guarded buildings where the only harm can be done is by words and accusations, not bullets or explosives. Most of the damage is done during Paths of Glory in comfort by those who would rather save their reputation and achieve another accolade than own up to their mistakes.
Taking place during the height of World War 1 in 1916 on the French front of “No Mans Land” General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) strategizes with General Mireau (George Macready) with an incentive of promotion to take control of the German controlled front called the “Anthill”. Impossible as it may seem, General Mireau convincingly agrees to the attack in which Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) will carry out the orders, leading the charge across the dangerous battlelines.
Mireau’s plan fails spectacularly, as most depictions of a “No Man’s Land” sequence goes, to save his own skin, General Mireau deflects any wrongdoing in ordering a friendly fire attack to motivate his own soldiers by accusing 3 men from each brigade of cowardice in the face of war. Dax bravely enough puts himself as the one to blame however, Mireau moves swiftly with the court-martial of Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), and Private Ferol (Timothy Carey). 3 men sentenced to death not for their cowardice, but the cowardice of the men in charge, unwilling to take responsibility, the curse of their own ambition and glory.
Coming on the heels of The Killing, Kubrick follows up one near perfect film with another, setting a comprehensive standard in which he writes and directs films. Co-written with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson and based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick’s skill behind the camera has become a fine-tuned machine, creating meticulous perfection in every frame, line of dialogue, themes, and detail that make up his films.
Any film that depicts war is a tough endeavor – depicting the worst of humanity in a sympathetic way. To maneuver around the horrific gore associated, Kubrick utilizes a black and white color grade to hide some of the visceral details in gruesome deaths. On the other hand, the black and white along with the well-placed light sources enhances the detail, catching the contrast in the luxurious scenes of various discourse and different ideologies.
Several scenes constructed by Kubrick that don’t feature an act of violence stand out and can summarize war. Before the attack, on the previous night, two soldiers converse about death and how either would prefer to go out if they did happen to die. Bayonet or a bullet. One is quick and painless while the other is excruciating to talk and even think about. From this quick conversation, Kubrick squeezes the fear out of going to war without a single shot being fired. Those on the frontlines, the soldiers who signed up to fight for their country are afraid of fear itself. For any soldier, death is an escape from the pain (a bullet), living with the pain and constant reminder of fear for the remainder of their lives is much worse (a bayonet).
Kirk Douglas in his performance as Colonel Dax is one to be remembered out of the many additions in the anti-war film genre. His presence on screen is captivating and sincere, epitomizing the good of human nature and defending those who are innocent against an internal corruption. His face relays confusion, anger, and sadness for not being held accountable while 3 men doing their duty for their country are made to be the scapegoats instead. Douglas brings a respectability to the protagonist – you root for him as the defense of the 3 men, hoping someone in the court will see reason to the harsh accusations but understand the lengths Dax must go to, to protect the integrity of the accused.
It’s a system of injustice that Kubrick depicts with his anti-war film – those at the top are treated with immunity for their vile ambitions to move up the ladder while those at the very bottom aren’t given much hope – constantly put in harm’s way without an ounce of pride or gratitude thrown their way. The only solace soldiers receive in Paths of Glory comes toward the very end, in a scene that has no motive the remainder of the 85 or so minutes have.
In a pub, soldiers under the command of Dax cheer and whistle for a “captured” German girl who is objectified by the MC. She has no talent but a nice singing voice and in that moment, harmony is achieved. The soldiers stop their whistling and hum along to the song. A touching reminder to find the beauty in life despite in the impending doom that war brings. An unexpected yet beautiful way to wrap up Paths of Glory with a tightly wrapped bow.
I had to keep reminding myself during Kubrick’s masterpiece that the characters are French yet there is no accent or dialect spoken with the assistance of subtitles. It’s a common criticism with this film and is valid 65 years later. Each Frenchman speaks perfect American English and acts as an American would. Any criticism I have with this film by Kubrick starts and ends there. Outside of the lack of verisimilitude of the depiction, Paths of Glory is an influential masterpiece that features layer upon layer of dense humanity. At 88 minutes long, Kubrick keeps a tight grasp on his film with perfectly timed transitions, well executed framed shots to further cause paranoia and a steady pace to keep the subject matter harsh but interesting.
Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham & Jim Thompson
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Music By: Gerald Fried
Cinematography: George Krause
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Susanne Christian, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joseph Turkel, Timothy Carey
Release Date: December 20, 1957
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Based On: Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb