WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Paths of Glory’.
Paths Of Glory is Stanley Kubrick’s fourth full-length feature, predating some of his better-known efforts, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). Nonetheless, it still holds up as one of his greatest achievements and is regarded by many as one of the greatest anti-war films of all time.
Based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Paths Of Glory is also considered to be one of Kubrick’s best war films, which is quite the statement, especially considering that later in his career he would go on to direct such films as Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket (1987) & Dr. Strangelove. (1964)
Despite a relatively small budget of $1,000,000, (with $300,000 of that amount going toward the salary of central star Kirk Douglas) Paths of Glory has aged incredibly well, with innovative, engaging ‘one-shot’ sequences pre-dating those seen in future war films, such as Joe Wright’s Atonement. Unlike similar war films of the era, including 1955’s The Dam Busters, or The Bridge on the River Kwai, (released only two months before) Paths of Glory is decidedly anti-war in its approach.
Into the Trenches
In the war-torn trenches of France during the height of the First World War, French General Mireau (George McReady) is informed by his superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), that his battalion is to conquer the “Anthill”, a key position to the German army. Shortly after, Mireau refuses the mission, arguing that victory would result in enormous losses. In response to this, his superior mentions that completing the assignment could mean a promotion, which makes the General change his mind, accepting to go through with the assault.
Even though it is clear for the entire regiment that they’re are being ordered into a near suicide mission, General Mireau does not back down. The ensuing battle is – as Mireau had predicted – a failure, with many casualties. The few survivors retreat, having gotten nowhere near the German trenches, while the second wave of soldiers refuses to leave their base for another attack.
As a way to justify the utter failure of the battle and to set an example for the rest of the troops, General Mireau decides to court-martial three soldiers involved in the bloodbath in particular on the grounds of cowardice. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) volunteers to defend them but soon discovers that the trial is a farce since many rights of the accused are violated and most arguments presented in favor of the defendants are completely disregarded by the presiding judge. With his hands tied, the Colonel begs for the mercy of the jury as the last resort, but his plea remains unanswered and all three are sentenced to death and shot the next morning.
Kubrick elevates his movie with a number of intelligent directing decisions. First of all, he opts never to show the Germans that the French are fighting against on-screen, which makes General Mireau, General Broulard and other high-ranked officials of the French army the true antagonists of the picture. The opulence and grandiosity of the mansion wherein Kubrick shoot the meeting of General Mireau and his superior, as well as the palace where the court-martial is conducted, reflects the power that the high-ranked officials have in their hands.
In stark opposition, the sequences set in the trenches are shot as if they were confined corridors, packed with soldiers shell-shocked by the horrors of war. The abundance of space previously mentioned eerily contrasts with the lack thereof in the trenches, representing the impotency of the soldiers, and even their commanders, in having control over their fates.
A Beautiful Nightmare
Elements of Kubrick’s inspired style of directing appear throughout. Near the beginning of the film, as General Broulard informs General Mireau of the need to take over the “Anthill”, the camera closely follows both, keeping them framed for the most part in medium shots and eventually in close-ups. But as General Mireau changes his mind and accepts to be in charge of the mission, they walk away from the camera and, this time, it stands still, making the medium shot change to a long shot, where they appear to be very small when compared to the size of the room they’re in. Seeing such important men so small showcases perfectly the pettiness of the decision being taken at that moment.
Another aspect of the movie that deserves praise is the acting, with the talented cast conveying perfectly the emotions required for the tone that Kubrick had wanted to evoke. In particular, Kirk Douglas, who was already a huge Hollywood star at the time, plays Colonel Dax brilliantly against the backdrop of Georg Krause’s beautifully bleak cinematography, who shot the film entirely in crisp black and white.
Kubrick succeeded in making a true anti-war film, showcasing all the senselessness that comes with the idea of wasting so many lives over political and economic interests, as well as the harm caused by mistaking patriotism for nationalism. Those concepts are epitomized in the most effective way in the final scene of the movie, where we are introduced to the only German character to appear on-screen, a teenage girl.
The unnamed prisoner, who was captured by the French, is forced to entertain the troops as they assemble in a bar, off duty. As she enters the stage, she is initially booed and verbally abused by the hostile French soldiers, but as she starts to sing, the crowd slowly begins to quiet down and, gradually, seeing her not as the enemy, but as an equal, as much a victim of the ‘powers that be’ as they are.
Hearing the group of soldiers humming along to the Girl as she continues singing, carries with it a beautiful message of union and equality – and serves as a powerful ending to one of Kubrick’s most touching works.
“A highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided working of the military mind.” – Sir Winston Churchill