Is there another director who has made as many powerfully antiwar movies as Stanley Kubrick? Paths of Glory joins Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket (and to some extent Spartacus and Barry Lyndon) in the Kubrickian canon of films that fight back against the idea that war can be noble, justified, or heroic. Even the picture’s title is a bitterly ironic reference to Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” And for all that, Paths of Glory was brushed aside in 1957, failing to garner even a single Academy Award nomination, in part due to the popularity of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Could there be a non-political reason of Paths of Glory to be shunned? I have a hard time imagining so, as this film is riveting for every second of its brief 88 minute run time. Paths of Glory is an audience-pleasing blend of war movie and courtroom drama, buoyed by an inspiring performance from Kirk Douglas, who considers it one of his best. But even in “liberal Hollywood,” and even though the army depicted is French, a war in the fifties about the madness of following orders and where the bad guys are the guys in charge was going to ruffle some feathers.
The film opens in a decadent French chateau occupied by General Mireau (George Macready), an ambitious and recently successful military leader who is visited by his superior, General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). Broulard asks Mireau to send his division to take “the Anthill,” a heavily fortified German position. Mireau scoffs, saying it’s so well-defended that any attack would be a suicide mission. Broulard says he understands, but being able to take the Anthill would be really great, perhaps even a promotion-worthy achievement. Hearing that, Mireau perks up and says now that he’s had more time to think about it, maybe it can be done.
Meanwhile, things are looking pretty bad on the front. The regiment is dug into their trench when Mireau comes to visit, encouraging them to be excited about killing and even berating a clearly shell-shocked soldier. He meets with Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the man who will be leading the charge to take the Anthill, who claims that even if they do manage to accomplish their goal, they’ll be overrun by reinforcements before the rest of the French army can relieve them. Mireau treats this as a challenge of Dax’s courage and faith in his men, leaving Dax with no choice but to follow orders.
Some shit goes down that night and things get even worse the day of the charge. Dax’s main battalion is quickly mowed down, and another is under such heavy fire they can’t even get out of the trench. Mireau is furious watching this and orders that the artillery fire on their own men to force them out into no man’s land. In an act partly of mercy and mostly of self-preservation, the artillery commander refuses to fire without a written order and before that can happen the attack is clearly over.
But this shameful story is just starting, as the embarrassed Mireau blames the failure on his men’s cowardice. Dax, who barely survived himself, challenges that accusation, but nonetheless it is decided that one man from each of the three companies would stand trial in a court martial, with their lives on the line. A gifted lawyer in his civilian life, Dax volunteers to defend the three men, but has quite an uphill battle, pun intended, keeping those soldiers alive in a inhumane system.
I picked a couple WWI films for this marathon only slightly because this period was the setting of Wonder Woman, and it’s gut-wrenching to be reminded of how terrible this conflict was. It was a period of senseless, unimaginable loss of life, and Paths of Glory aims to show exactly that. During the charge, Kubrick employs a lengthy tracking shot of Dax charging forward through the muck that is just devastating; all you see around him is destruction and death, it’s clear he’s not fighting a battle but merely doing the only thing he can: charge forward and hope not to die. Kubrick plays this futility up even more by not showing any German soldiers at all, because our heroes never stood a chance and the real enemy are the fatcats who ordered the attack in the first place.
But it’s the scenes after the court martial that are most powerful, as we are forced to watch at length the final shattering of any humanity or decency in any of these characters. The message is clear: War is hell, and not just on the battlefield. Wherever conflicts like this exist, injustices are happening and despicable, permanent choices are being made by exactly the wrong people. And this was years before the hippies and Vietnam. The paths of glory do lead but to the grave, and even then there may not be any glory in it.