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Rediscover:

Paths of Glory

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

1957

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

I first encountered Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 masterpiece, on a fuzzy video cassette during my junior year in college. It was still the era of the top-loader VCR and I was skipping out on homework to indulge an increasing fascination with classic film. But Kubrick’s film about a French battalion in WWI and starring Kirk Douglas has stayed with me as one of my favorite films ever.

Paths of Glory, lovingly reissued by the Criterion Collection, is Kubrick’s fourth feature, following his career-making twisty noir The Killing. Based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name (which was based on true events), Paths of Glory concerns the execution of three French soldiers for cowardice. However, these soldiers are killed not because they refused to fight, but because their entire battalion couldn’t complete a fool’s errand attack on entrenched German positions on orders given by a general (George Macready) angling for a promotion.

The film begins as Macready’s General Paul Mireau visits with his superior General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) during a luncheon at an opulent castle (filmed at Munch’s Schleissheim Palace). Broulard asks Mireau if his men could overtake a German fortification they call the “Anthill.” At first, Mireau blusters that such a task is impossible, but when Broulard dangles a promotion, Mireau redacts his complaints and commits his men to the impossible cause.

Kubrick then creates a heady juxtaposition in the trenches where the life of the common soldier is a reality filled with dirt and bombs and blood, miles away from the riches of the higher-ups. Here we met Douglas’ heroic Colonel Dax (shirtless in Kirk Douglas style on first glance). Dax doesn’t like Mireau’s insistence on storming the Anthill but like a good soldier, he agrees to lead the charge. The mission turns out to be a suicide run, men are either killed or fall back, despite Dax’s best efforts to rally his troops. Mireau is furious and threatens to court martial and execute the entire battalion. Broulard intervenes and allows each division to select one man to serve as an example.

Each of the three men is chosen for questionable reasons: one is socially “undesirable,” the other drew the short straw and the third is selected because he knew his sergeant had accidentally murdered another soldier. Colonel Dax has appointed himself as defendant for the three troops but soon realizes the court martial is nothing but a kangaroo court designed to process and swiftly send the men on their way to execution.

Like the best anti-war films, Paths of Glory works best as agitprop, a steely look at the dichotomous military and the hypocrisy that exists in the upper level. While Kubrick would later revisit war’s dehumanizing effects in Full Metal Jacket, the film doesn’t have a character like Colonel Dax for us to rally around.

According to critic James Naremore, Paths of Glory is the only Kubrick film (aside from Spartacus) “that has a protagonist with whom the audience can feel a straightforward, unproblematic identification.” If the film had been populated with the morally ambiguous types or the downright scoundrels of later Kubrick, it would be more difficult to dislike Mireau and Broulard as much as we do.

While Mireau is transparent in his machinations, it’s Broulard that is the real villain here. Given an opportunity by Dax to save the men, Broulard is so far corrupted that he sees the Colonel’s attempts not as a caring about his men, but rather as a way for Douglas’ character to climb the ladder. When he later offers Mireau’s job to Dax, the colonel breaks down and shouts, “You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man, you can go to hell before I apologize to you again!” It may sound emo for a director with such a chilly reputation, but it’s rousing, effective and cathartic for the audience.

What elevates Paths of Glory above and beyond the standard war film (despite Kubrick’s keen direction) is its final moments when Dax spies a group of furloughed soldiers being entertained by a captured German girl (Susanne Christian, soon to be Kubrick’s wife). As the men jeer and harass the teary girl, she is prompting to sing “The Faithful Hussar,” Frantzen-Gustav Gerdes’ song that is akin to our “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” As this group of non-actors pauses and recognizes the song, Kubrick shoots each man in a tight close-up as his resolves first softens and then again as the men begin to cry and hum along. It is a quiet, haunting scene that ranks with some of the most arresting in cinema. But the relief is only temporary as Dax is called away and back to the front where more bullets, bombs and corrupt officials await him.

by David Harris

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