Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb.
Starring: Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), Susanne Christian (German Singer), Peter Capell (Narrator of Opening Sequence / Chief Judge of Court-Martial), Emile Meyer (Father Dupree), Bert Freed (Sgt. Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Pvt. Lejeune), Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol).
If there is a greater anti-war movie than Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, than I have not seen it. It is WWI, and the trench warfare between the French and the Germans is at a standstill – we are informed as the movie begins that the two sides are dug in, victories are measured in gaining a few hundred feet, and cost thousands of lives. The first scene has two Generals – Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) ordering his underling Mireau (George Macready) that he and his men must take the “ant-hill” – which would be a massive victory for the French. Mireau argues that it is impossible – his men are wounded and tired, and above everything else, his duty is to his men. But then Broulard tells him that he may be in line for a promotion if the mission succeeds – and Mireau changes his tune. He estimates that his men can take the hill only losing 65% of the soldiers in the assault, and that would be enough to hold the hill until reinforcements arrive. Besides, Mireau won’t actually have to do any fighting – he’ll be watching from a safe distance in a bunker. The man who will actually have to lead the assault is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) – who likes Mireau, thinks the mission is impossible, but unlike Mireau doesn’t have the luxury of turning the mission down, or sitting it out in a bunker.
The assault sequence is one of the greatest in film history – on par with Saving Private Ryan or any other war sequence you can name. Before then, Kubrick spends time in the trenches with the men – he had to make the trenches a little wider than they were in reality, to have room for his cameras. He has long, unbroken tracking shots throughout the trenches, right in front of Douglas as he walks the trenches and tries to encourage his men on a mission they all know is suicide. The actual assault is a blur of mud and fog – once again, with long tracking shots, as it follows Dax as he tries in vain to lead the assault. But the men get bogged down quickly – they cannot gain any ground. They are getting shot as soon as they leave the trenches. They are gaining no ground – some cannot leave the trenches at all. Mireau is furious from the safety of his bunker – and orders the artillery to fire on their own men to force them forward – but they refuse without an official, written order. The assault fails, the men retreats – and Mireau are furious. To him, the assault didn’t fail because it was impossible – it failed because the men were cowards who refused to fight. To set an example for the rest of the army, he – with Broulard’s support – orders a court martial. Three men will be tried, and if found guilty, face execution for cowardice. Dax is infuriated – and insists on representing the men himself.
If you think you know where Paths of Glory is going from there – and that’s basically just the first third of the movie – you’d be mistaken. There are no heroics here – Dax will not be the brilliant trial lawyer who gets his innocent clients off. The trial is a mockery – and everyone seems to agree that the men are already guilty – if they weren’t cowards, they’d be dead. Since they’re alive, they must be cowards – case closed. Not even when Dax learns of the Mireau’s orders to fire on his own men can he convince Broulard to stop the execution. It never even occurs to Mireau to do so – it never even occurs to him that Dax actually wants to save his men. He thinks he’s after Mireau’s job.
Francois Truffaut said it was impossible to make an anti-war film, because no matter what you did, the war scenes would always be exciting and seem glamorous. I’ve never really believed that – there have been other great anti-war movies (Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930 comes to mind) – but Kubrick’s film is better than the rest. There is nothing glamourous about the assault scene in Paths of Glory – it’s pure, terrifying chaos. Even before that scene, Kubrick undercuts the glory of war in conversations between the soldiers themselves – an almost poetic scene of men discussing how they would prefer to die – by machine gun or bayonet. And while many war films, either on purpose or by accident – act as a call for patriotism, Paths of Glory is decidedly unpatriotic – from Dax quoting Samuel Johnson’s famous quote “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, to Kubrick’s portrait of how the upper-class views the lower class as little more than bodies to be sacrificed at their convenience, to the powerful final scene – a song, of all things, that is pretty much the inverse of the famed scene in Casablanca where they sing La Mariselle – Kubrick eyes patriotism with little more than contempt. The film was banned in France because of its harsh view of the military – and I have to wonder if Kubrick could have gotten the film made at all had it depicted American soldiers.
The acting in the film is superb across the board – no one more so than Douglas, who delivers the best performance of his career as Dax. He is a soldier first and foremost, and he willingly follows orders – but he also stands up for what he believes in – at the detriment to himself. Douglas often played the square jawed hero – as we will see in the next installment of this Kubrick series, Spartacus – but his performance here is deeper, and darker than that.
The film is only 87 minutes long – short for a Kubrick film, but perfect for this story. This is a rather blunt movie – because that it is what is called for. It’s hard to believe that the same man who directed this – one of the greatest of all war films – had made Fear & Desire just 4 years before. That film had a lot of pontificating about war and death – but was really a pretentious mess. Paths of Glory gets to the heart of what Kubrick had been trying to say a few years early. It is the first true masterpiece in a career that was full of them.