Paths of Glory

(USA - 1957)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson
Genre: War
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Calder Willingam, Jim Thompson, Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb
Cinematography: George Krause
Composer: Gerald Fried
Runtime: 86 minutes

With Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick has given us one of the most decidedly anti-war films ever made. As always, Kubrick goes against the status quo and delivers a side of his topic that is rarely filmed, the evils of the politics of war as shown through ranking officers of the soldiers own side rather than the evil enemy leader such as Hitler. His piece focuses on an underarmed and manned French unit forced to go through with the impossible mission of capturing the German "anthill" during World War I. They must do this because, even though General Paul Mireau (George Macready) knows it's a suicide mission, if the men somehow pull it off he'll get a promotion. The mission is so ridiculous that most of the men from the first wave are killed within a few feet of leaving their own trench. The few that aren't refuse to go forward any more because with another step they'd most likely join their dead friends. Ditto the second and third waves, who know they can't even make it over their own wall so they don't die trying. Instead of calling the mission off, the general orders his bombers to fire on the men from the first wave, their own comrades, for not moving forward. Eventually the mission is aborted against the will of the general, so he wants to have 100 of the men that survived killed for cowardice.

The rest of the film focuses on Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a leading defense attorney before the war and the unfortunate unwilling leader of the failed charge on the anthill, trying to save three of his men from being executed due to the ridiculous charges of the promotion hungry general. The trial scenes are some of the most unjust and appalling ever filmed, as the prosecution offers no witnesses (there are none that could corroborate their "truth") and Dax's case is so sabotaged that he really can't make one.

The story, although based in fact, is just scenery. The movie is an incredibly serious look at corruption among high ranking officers in any military, and the various ways the soldiers are stuck withstanding the brunt of it. That the French banned it for 20 years shows how powerful the movie is, and that like every other country they haven't learned from these (and lord knows how many others) mistakes. The intention (or at least part of it) is not to dishonor France, but to look at the problems with the ranking system in any countries military. The film, in many different ways, shows that honesty is usually suppressed and of little significance on the few occasions it isn't. Perhaps the most startling is that General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) considers all Dax's efforts to save his men and get the blame placed where it belongs (or at least where he thinks it belongs and it partially does) on irresponsible General Mireau as nothing more than a play to get Mireau's job. "You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command. You are an idealist -- and I pity you as I would the village idiot."

Paths of Glory ignores that fact that the troops were guilty of the crime they were charged with. I fully believe this is purposeful and the lost point of the movie is that loyalty and courage should only go so far. No one can blame them for being guilty rather than dead. The dishonor should belong to the general for putting them in a position where he knew they had virtually no chance of succeeding and certainly for ordering death upon them when he realized their chance of succeeding was zero.

The power of Paths of Glory is such that it makes you ashamed to open a history book. The common man is too "common" and "insignificant " to be recognized as a hero. Of course, no one wants to read a history book that's 8 billion pages long chronicling every man who did "good" in every war, but that doesn't mean the most influential men were good either. One way or another, we all realize that the greatest military leaders are also the greatest murderers of their time, but there's usually some glory attached to their victories. I'm not saying that every great military leader was bad by any means for many did their job like anyone else and did it with compassion for their troops. The fact that you know many others put their position over the lives of their men and weren't discredited brings more than a slight feeling of nausea to the stomach. Even historical heroes that were discredited like Christopher Columbus are still celebrated today as supposed hero, apparently it's heroic to slaughter the inhabitants a place you "discover." In any case, The Path of Glory here is stabbing your men in the back for your own benefit. If they lose, they either pay with their life or take all the blame. If they win, you get all the credit.

One of the things that stand out about the film is the settings. The soldiers are in muddy trenches fearing for their lives and having bombs regularly explode within feet of them. On the other hand, the people with the real power get to party and only occasionally have to go into the safe parts of the trenches and order around men that used to be their peers but now experience life in a totally different and utterly horrible way.

One thing I really liked about the film is we purposely get no shots of the enemy as a way of showing the concept of enemy to be a falsity. There are enemies in this film, but (with one exception) they all outrank all the heroes of the film. This perfectly sets up the message of the final scene, where we see the lone German.

The final scene is brilliant. A degraded German woman (Kubrick's wife Christiane) is forced to perform for the unit who is so starved for escapism (entertainment) that they are totally rowdy and completely out of control. She sings a folk song in German that is also a French folk song, which entirely changes the mood of the soldiers because they realize the enemy is not all that different from themselves.

The film is strong from a technical perspective, especially for the time, but it's ridiculous to say it compares with Full Metal Jacket or many of his other later films from this perspective. It's not experimental like his later films; it's very straight forward in comparison to Kubrick's later work. For the most part, we only get one angle during the war scenes. The film contains has some excellent tracking shots, particularly in the trenches, but it's not like he didn't improve upon them in later films. Everything is effective, but this doesn't have brilliant sound (I would have said score, but we got explosions instead of something that could be taken as raising the level of the battle) or a bunch of classic shots. The power comes from the material that is so anti-war, so infuriating, not from any specific production element.

The dialogue is well written and read, but read is the key. The fact that every character in the movie but one is supposed to be French, yet none of them sound remotely French really takes down the realism. I feel the plight of the soldiers, but there's a certain detachment because without the authenticity I always feel like I'm watching a film. It doesn't hit as hard as say Jean-Luc Godard's film Les Carabiniers about (among many other things) people going into war because it gave them carte blanche to do anything they wanted in the enemy country and to the enemies. Les Carabiniers obviously has real Frenchmen and also feels like a movie, but for entirely different reasons. Godard shows cue cards that have text of actual letters sent to loved ones during the war, but it maintains a documentary sort of feel and doesn't lose its perceived realism because of it.

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I am hardly the biggest fan of Tom Cruise, actually I like Kirk Douglas better, but I can say with no reserve that his work in Eyes Wide Shut smokes any of the performances here. In fact, as bad as Adam Baldwin usually is he's far more memorable in Full Metal Jacket than almost any performer is in Paths of Glory. A lot of the "problem" is the characters were one-dimensional because no other dimension was necessary. The war made them into sentimental figures. Any further information was irrelevant because they weren't going to make it out of the war.

Paths of Glory comes very highly recommended if you want to see an anti-war film. Enter into it knowing that it is totally anti-war though. I totally agree with the stance Kubrick has taken and I'm more interested in the merit of this type of piece than whether it was dramatic. That said, Paths of Glory does not make for the greatest movie of all time because it is predictable. You more or less know how things will turn out within the first half-hour and, while many scenes after that are individually memorable, the film doesn't really build up. What it does is succeed because even though there are few surprises, that doesn't lessen your emotion toward the material; you know the acts are wrong and it really pisses you off. On the contrary, when one thing pisses you off you might be able to get over it when another makes you happy (and if overrated Spielberg is directing you know there will be way too many happy characters and moments), but Paths of Glory is one outrage after another. That's why you boil over during the movie and that anger resonates long after the closing credits.



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