Paths of Glory (1957)
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
– “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray
When Paths of Glory was released in 1957, it was banned in France until 1975. Germany refused to allow it in the Berlin Film Festival lest the picture strain relations with France. Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascist government in Spain would not allow the movie to be shown, and it wasn’t until 1986, 11 years after Franco died. And lest we let the United States off the hook, Paths of Glory was banned from being shown in any military establishment. All this does is speak to the power of the themes of the picture, Kubrick’s first great anti-war film.
Based on a true story, the narrative follows Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) as he leads his soldiers against the Germans during World War I. They are dug into the trenches and making slow progress of gaining yards at a time. This is not enough for the French General Staff and the demand that General Mireau orders Dax to send his men over the trenches to claim a German position nicknamed “the Anthill.” Everyone involved admits this will be a suicide mission, but they need to give the French people a boost of morale. The day of the attack comes, and Dax’s troops are massacred with one unit refusing to even leave the trenches. Mireau orders his own people to be fired upon but is denied. When the dust settles, Mireau demands a court-martial, and it’s decided that three random soldiers will be offered up as an example to the others. Dax realizes he can no longer stomach what is happening and tries to stop the mindless cult of nationalism and war before it kills his men.
Stanley Kubrick had read the novel that inspired the film when he was younger and decided to purchase the film rights from the author’s widow. It corresponded with the director’s growing anti-war sentiments when that mindset wasn’t considered fashionable. He was particularly disgusted with the romanticizing of war, aided by propaganda in the media and particularly in movies. Around the time of A Clockwork Orange’s release, Kubrick laid out his thoughts on humanity, saying, “Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved – that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.”
Colonel Dax is an attempt at a noble figure who will stand up to institutional evil, and ultimately he loses, forced to send his men back into the grinder because what else can he do? In the hands of a more traditional Hollywood filmmaker, Dax would have saved his men at the last second, but instead, the audience is made to endure the murders of these three soldiers who did nothing wrong. Kubrick makes sure we see how absurd the executions are by having one man suffering a skull fracture so severe that he has to have his cheeks pinched so he’ll be conscious right before he’s murdered by firing squad. A second man collapses into tears, crying out for God and his mother for over a day, sobbing like a child right before he’s slaughtered. The third man was witness to a commanding officer’s cowardice and subsequent accidentally killing of a soldier. This commanding officer “randomly” chooses him to the one offered up, ensuring his crime will be covered.
Kubrick refused to sugarcoat war and focused on portraying it in as bleak as light as was possible at the time. He puts the audience down in the murk of the trenches, focusing on the mental collapse of these young men as they are faced with death no matter which way they turn. As General Mireau tours the trenches, he comes across a man who has obviously had a mental breakdown. When informed by a soldier that this man is “shell shocked,” Mireau scoffs that such a thing does not exist. Later, Dax sits at a lunch table as two generals discuss how excellent the upcoming executions will be for morale. When the Colonel makes a last-ditch move to save his men by throwing Mireau under the bus, the general only gets punished after the firing squad has done its work. Additionally, it’s seen by his superior that Dax was just playing an ambitious game to steal Mireau’s job, a failure to understand his moral outrage.
The core theme of the picture is how institutions allow dangerous ideologies to flourish under the guise of patriotism and honor. Mireau is the perfect picture of that, lamenting in the opening scene how valuable the life of each and every soldier under his command is. Cut to the middle of the film when he is issuing an order to have a frightened unit murdered and then the central conflict of the film, offering three men as sacrificial goats to terrify the others. This is all contrasted in the final scene where a group of French soldiers rowdy and drunk shout for the innkeeper to bring out a German woman he has possibly captured, she most definitely doesn’t look happy to be there. She sings a folksong of which we do not get a translation, but that is the point. The Frenchmen don’t know what she is saying, but her tears and the resonance of her humanity affect them, silencing their chortling and overloading them with emotion. Amid this Hell, Dax begs his men to have a few minutes more, to remember what it feels like not to be on edge thinking about your own death at all times.