Young men die so that older, richer, and more powerful men can amass greater wealth and power. That’s pretty much the basic function of war. Stanley Kurbrick’s best film, Paths of Glory, dramatizes that truth better than any other motion picture I’ve seen.
For its strong story, dazzling visuals (which never dazzle for their own sake), and courageous themes, Paths of Glory belongs on my A+ list of favorite films that I have loved for decades.
But before discussing Kubrick’s masterpiece, I’d like to bring your attention to another story about a French soldier put on trial: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Back to Paths of Glory:
World War I–arguably one of humanity’s worst mistakes–inspired many great films. A few that come to mind include J’Accuse, The Big Parade, Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, The King of Hearts, and
Lawrence of Arabia (another of my A+ films). But Paths of Glory truly gets to the heart of the whole disaster, and it does it by examining one minor affair in the French army.
The screenplay was written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. The novel, which was inspired by an actual event, had been bouncing around Hollywood for years before Kubrick dared to make it.
The story is set in the French army, partly in the trenches, a bit in no-man’s land, but mostly in the comfortable quarters of the Generals. It’s 1916, with little advancement and a lot of death.
The characters may be French, but the dialog is in English and the actors are American. Thankfully, no one tries to speak English with a French accent.
General Mireau (George Macready) receives an assignment to take a piece of real estate called “the anthill.” He rejects the orders; it’s an impossible goal and his regiment has been badly battered. But a promised promotion changes his mind. When the attack inevitably fails, he orders three men to be court-martialed for cowardice and shot.
Kubrick uses sets, locations, and photography to emphasize the vast differences between the Generals and the soldiers. Those in the front line live in muddy trenches; their world is dirty, wet, and dangerous. Shells go off constantly. The Generals live in mansions that look like palaces. They have servants and good pastry. There’s even a party where men and woman enjoy a waltz.
Paths of Glory was Kubrick’s first film with a major star, and that star was Kirk Douglas. The director needed star power to get a decent budget, and that meant compromise. Douglas’ character, Colonel Dax, is the first Hollywood-type hero in a Kubrick film (Spartacus, also played by Douglas, was the second and last such hero in a Kubrick film). A brilliant lawyer in civilian life, Dax is courageous, cares for his men, and does everything he can to help them. He’s photographed heroically, and even gets to take off his shirt.
Purists may call that a problem, but Douglas’ star power–and his star demands–actually help the film. Not only do we have someone to cheer for, but his ultimate failure emphasizes just how badly the deck is stacked against the people who do the dirty work in war.
Douglas doesn’t hog the film. The three men chosen for execution are unique and strong individuals, with their own stories of how they hit their bad luck. They’re played by Ralph Meeker and Kubrick regulars Joe Turkel and Timothy Carey. Other characters stand out, as well, such as Wayne Morris as a drunken and cowardly Lieutenant.
Paths of Glory plays more like a courtroom drama than a war movie, but the big battle early on gives us not only the horror of war but its utter helplessness. Dax leads his men through shell holes and barbed wire, but it is all futile. And there is nothing…absolutely nothing they can do to win the anthill. General Mireau, of course, can’t possibly admit his mistake. For him, only a dead regiment could prove that the mission was impossible.
Mireau prefers the fight in the courtroom (which looks like a chessboard), because here his victory is guaranteed. Dax tries valiantly to save the accused, but nothing he can do can help the three symbolic victims. Their execution must happen. The trial is only a formality.
There’s another General in the story, played by Adolphe Menjou. He’s Mireau’s commanding officer, and while in some moments he appears to be the voice of reason, he proves to be nothing of the sort.
Kubrick doesn’t give us heroic Frenchmen fighting evil Germans. The enemy, we must assume, are just another group of terrified men exploited by their rulers. We meet a German woman in the very last, touching scene.