Paths of Glory (1957)

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

Producers: Kirk Douglas, James B. Harris, Stanley Kubrick (Bryna, Harris-Kubrick)

Writers: Humphrey Cobb (novel), Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (screenplay)

Photography: Georg Krause

Music: Gerald Fried

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick, Jerry Hausner, Peter Capell, Emile Meyer, Bert Freed, Kern Dibbs, Timothy Carey

“Patriotism may be old fashioned, but show me a patriot and I’ll show you an honest man.”

“Samuel Johnson had something else to say about patriotism. … He said it was the last refuge of the scoundrels.”

No matter where you fall on the “hawk and dove” spectrum, we all can recognize that, when you’re in battle, war is hell. We instantly recall the violent chaos and R. Lee Ermey soundbytes of Full Metal Jacket (1987). But Jacket was really just the last in Stanley Kubrick’s continued interest in the horrors of war, of which Paths of Glory was his first, and arguably better, effort. And yet, Paths of Glory remains somewhat a hidden treasure compared to Full Metal Jacket, one unknown to the general population, but one which, when finally seen, is ranked a whopping 8.5 on IMDB, higher than the 8.4 for Full Metal Jacket.

Such response earns Paths of Glory the title of “best war movie you haven’t seen,” a film that became the most powerful anti-war statement since Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), taking such battlefield horrors and infusing the genre of court drama, an original concept well before Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in turn becoming the most stinging indictment of war crimes in the history of the movies.

Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, which was loosely based on a six-month bloodbath that claimed the lives of 315,000 French soldiers during the Battle of Verdun in WWI, Paths of Glory was shot on location in Germany and follows French Army Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a tough, idealist, who prior to enlistment had been “the foremost criminal lawyer in all of France.” At the outset of the film he and his men are pinned down in the trenches by a barage of explosions fired from a German post known as “The Ant Hill,” one which his superior officer, Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready), impossibly orders the men to take, predicting losses of over half of Dax’s men.

After arguing the command is a clear suicide mission, Dax valiantly leads his men to charge the hill, suffering heavy casualties before being driven back into their own trench, where it turns out a third of his men have been the whole time. This, of course, infuriates the arrogant Gen. Mireau, who orders fire on his own men and charges them with “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” punishable by death, upon which Dax defends his men, saying, “Don’t you see, sir, they’re not cowards if some of them didn’t leave the trenches. It must have been because it was impossible!”

Such earnest pleas convince superior Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to reduce the charges to just three men (Timothy Carey, Joseph Turkel and Ralph Meeker), but even this is unjust considering all three are innocent and at least one has been chosen on account of his commanding officer’s personal grudge. Smelling the injustice, Dax revives his lawyer past, appearing as council for the accused at their court-martial hearing, a seemingly rigged event without even a stenographer, fighting for the lives of three men doomed to the drumrolls and blindfolds of the firing squad.

These events, co-written by Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham (The Graduate), are powerful enough on their own. But they become legendary with the addition of two commanding screen presences — the tall, scar-faced George Macready and the dimple-chinned, teeth-gritting Kirk Douglas, appearing for the first time with Kubrick and developing such a bond that Douglas would request Kubrick to replace director Anthony Mann on Spartacus (1960).

Douglas indeed owes large credit to Kubrick, who at the young age of 28 was really beginning to demonstrate a keen understanding of visual storytelling. It’s he who makes Douglas is a king, his camera dramatically following Douglas as he approaches the bench to address the court with Kubrick’s triumphant dialogue: “Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.” The whole thing is shot from a distance, panning behind a number of court guards while using deep-focus lenses to keep Douglas in focus in the background.

This same approach appears throughout the film, with human figures — be they wounded troops or ballroom dancers — appearing between the camera and the subjects of interest, an existential statement by Kubrick as if to say that these individual lives are interchangeable, but the world remains constant, left stained with the blood of humanity.

While Kubrick certainly became more indulgent over the years, he was so fresh in Paths of Glory that he was arguably more economicalHow better to express the impossibility of the company’s charge than by shooting it in long-take pans, or the nightmare of a night mission by eerie silence broken by a cut to a smoking corpse? How better to express the pressure of trial witnesses than by shoving the camera right in their face, while using deep focus photography to make them appear all the more alone in front of the court martial? And how better to show the dread of the condemned than by cross-cutting their walk to the firing squad with subjective shots of their final experience on earth?

In such ways, Kubrick is a master at using visual expression to convey meaning. This is never more apparent than the contrast between the POV shots of Col. Dax and Gen. Mireau. The only time we see Gen. Mireau’s POV is in the form of a parascope looking at The Ant Hill, while we more often see Col. Dax’s viewpoint, usually looking at his own men. This clever use of subjective camera shows the contrast between Gen. Mireau’s military mind, his only concern being victory, and Dax’s humanistic mind, his concern being more on his soldiers’ well-being. It should be no surprise then that the camera (in an impressive long take) backs away from Mireau as he marches through the trenches asking his men, “Are you ready to kill more Germans?”

Likewise, with its unsentimental story and grim subject matter, it should also be no surprise that the film was poorly received upon its release. Paths of Glory earned no Oscar nominations and struggled at the box office during a time of ’50s Korean War patriotism. Honestly, how could a downbeat, black-and-white, indie film project with less than a million-dollar budget compete with a colorful blockbuster like David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)?

The backlash went so far as to have the film banned in France and Switzerland for almost 20 years. But this is what the artist does. He or she makes a statement, regardless of the reception. In today’s post-Vietnam, post-Iraq world, Kubrick’s film is embraced as an early warning sign against power-hungry military officers who put their careers ahead of their men and their own moral obligations. At the start of the film, Gen. Broulard says, “I’m responsible for the lives of 8,000 men. What is my ambition against that? What is my reputation in comparison to that?” But later, he compromises these ideals for those very things — ambition and reputation. It’s disturbing to see him pace around the room with Gen. Mireau, discussing how best to send his troops on a suicide mission.

As one might guess, there is no literal fulfillment of the film’s title, a phrase taken from 18th century English poet Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” (A) Alas, death looms close over Kubrick’s film, asking “what price glory,” but even deeper, what is real glory anyway? Is it in taking a hill? Is it winning a court-martial case? Is it found in bolstering one’s reputation? Or is it even in being promoted to general?

As far as Col. Dax is concerned, it’s none of these. To Dax, true glory is found in sticking to one’s ideals, no matter the situation. If he were to accept Broulard’s promotion, it would only go against his own principles. Viewers may rejoice in this, as well as the retribution he scores against the film’s main villain, Mireau. But such glory is bittersweet at best, as both Dax and viewers know it comes at the cost of innocent lives.

As such, the film can have no real happy ending, offering rather an experience that leaves one to think beyond the credits. The final scene is one of the most powerful in movies, as a group of raucus French soldiers sit in a tavern whistling at the captured German singer, played by Susanne Christian, whom Kubrick would marry a year later. As the woman begins singing a German folk ballad, the French troops are silenced, choked up, even brought to tears, realizing the common humanity that transcends national borders and battlelines. The devastation of the war is best understood in this moment, and we ache as Dax orders his men to return to the front lines.

Citations:

CITE A: Tim Dirks, AMC Filmsite

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