Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” (1957)
A simply and tightly made film with a powerful message about honour, duty and how war degrades men and masculinity, “Paths of Glory” is a fine example of how Kubrick was hitting his stride as a director. The film was the start of a fruitful relationship with lead actor Kirk Douglas who would go on to appear in another Kubrick film (“Spartacus”). Based on a novel which itself was based on a mutiny by the French army during World War I, the film revolves around a scheme cooked up by two senior French generals Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and the professionally ambitious Mireau (George Macready) to throw a division of soldiers at a German-defended position known as the Ant Hill. Initially Mireau protests at the hare-brained idea but when Broulard mentions that success in taking the Ant Hill would lead to a promotion for Mireau, the other man quickly changes his mind.
Mireau informs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the attack that Dax’s men will have to carry out and despite Dax’s protests at the sheer lunacy of the idea, Mireau dumps the responsibility for planning the details of the attack onto his subordinate. In the meantime, a night-time scouting mission to ascertain the chances of success in attacking the Ant Hill results in tragedy when the scout is killed by a grenade lobbed by his superior: the corporal (Ray Meeker) accompanying the scout finds his body and confronts the superior who denies any wrongdoing.
Next day the attack on Ant Hill takes place and as expected by Dax, ends disastrously with huge numbers of casualties. Meanwhile Mireau orders his artillery to fire on B Company when those soldiers refuse to participate in the suicide mission. After the attack, Mireau orders a court martial of 100 soldiers for cowardice but Broulard convinces him to reduce the number to three men selected at random. Of the men selected for court martial, one of them is the second scout. While Colonel Dax – a criminal lawyer in civilian life – acts as defence lawyer in the kangaroo court, the three men are swiftly judged guilty and sentenced to face a firing squad.
The action is brisk, the plot uncompromising and the acting is crisp and meets the challenge of the plot and the issues it poses about how corrupt generals play with the lives of soldiers and about the place of honour and integrity during war. There is some over-acting from actors playing minor characters but the context in which this occurs can be justified: knowing that you’re about to meet your maker much sooner than you realise does concentrate the mind and the emotions too well. In this world of ongoing grinding trench warfare there is no place for compassion, truth or justice. Mireau does get his comeuppance but only because of Broulard’s further manipulations, not because he gets caught out for having ordered his artillery to kill his own men. The hellishness and brutality of war are highlighted by Kubrick’s masterful use of tracking shots which when used in the trenches also convey a strong sense of paranoia and fear. Dax and his men are treated as no more than machines; at the end of the film, they are all called back to the front, presumably to carry out yet another foolhardy mission as directed by remote generals.
The film’s conclusion highlights the common humanity of both the French and their German enemy but at the same time underlines the role of the foot soldier as cannon fodder.