Paths of Glory is arguably the best film about the First World War, and certainly one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest. It is a treatise on human injustice; a compelling and harsh indictment of war. The title is entirely ironic and comes from a line in eighteenth century romantic poet Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
This brilliant criticism of the macabre futility and horror in the trenches was adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and pulp expert Jim Thompson, from the 1935 (Nineteen Thirty Five) novel by Herbert Cobb- which, scandalously, was inspired by a real event.
The scarred and brilliant George Macready plays French General Mireau, an officer who in 1916 (Nineteen Sisteen) orders a suicidally fruitless attack on a German stronghold. After the inevitable debacle, he orders three men to be chosen at random and shot for cowardice.
“The men died wonderfully!” he vainly crows as he enjoys tea and delicate pastries at Head Quarters. Utterly disregarding that they died in droves, failed to secure the objective and semi came under fire from their own artillery.
No, no, they died wonderfully.
In the trenches- amid the mud, the rats and the corpses of one’s friends- there is at least a sense of solidarity amongst the honourable yet ill fated soldiers. Their emotions are real.
Yet, in the General’s HQ, amongst the columns, frescos and sweeping staircases, the expensive art on the walls and marble floors underfoot, the aristocrats and officer class converse in ghoulish obscenities about acceptable death tolls. The Versailles-like structure sapping their moral thoughts, until they are strangled by protocol, precedents and military codes.
Away from the banal social etiquette, Kirk Douglas plays rough old soldier Colonel Dax, revolted with his superiors’ arrogant ineptitude. He attempts to defend the innocent men who are to be slaughtered. Kubrick’s juxtaposition of nauseating trifling tyranny behind the lines and battle scenes strewn with camaraderie is masterful.
And what battle scenes! The relentless right-to-left tracking shots through a no man’s land strewn with corpses and wire and the explosions that hurl showers of muddy debris on the actors- and the camera- were state of the art at the time.
Kubrick was just 28 when he directed Paths of Glory and I cannot stress enough just how magnificent the battle scenes are!
In the final sequence, a scene of enigmatic redemptive beauty, a German woman sings to the troops as Kubrick blends compassion, perhaps with something of those commanding officers’ detachment and control.
“Gentlemen of the court,” says Douglas’ Colonel Dax, in a line that could plausibly appear in a subsequent Kubrick film, “there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one of them.”
Paths of Glory’s anti-war message and cinematic reprisal meant it suffered poor box-office returns, and was banned in France and Switzerland for almost twenty years following its release. Knowing that, to me, makes the film’s social message even more cutting.