Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

To see list – no.19


Finally, I have started crossing titles off my list of essential films. I had a break from covering the Oscars nominees to revisit one of Kubrick’s classics, Paths of Glory. I’m a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut being among my all time favourite films so, I couldn’t miss this one. I wasn’t disappointed. Paths of Glory is an outstanding picture that goes beyond the conventional war films (which at the time were made mostly for the sake of propaganda) to explore greed, death and dehumanization.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave“. The title derived from this line of Thomas Grey’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“. Described as “a war film with an anti-war theme” the film stars Kirk Douglas as Dax, a colonel of the French army who is ordered to undertake an impossible attack on the enemy line during WWI. When his men fail to capture the enemy target and retreat, their furious general commands the arrest of three of them. The soldiers are facing death penalty and the only one who is  willing to defend them is Colonel Dax.

Paths of Glory works incredibly well in various aspects. It is I think Stanley Kubrick’s first study on dehumanization, a theme explored in several of his films. This is best showcased through the characters of Generals Mireau (George Macready) and Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). The first scene, which is overflowed by irony, is the epitome of human greed. General Broulard is given the order to attack Anthill, a very important strategic position held by the Germans. Knowing that the task is nothing less than impossible, he visits General Mireau trying to assign him the task. Mireau calls the idea ridiculous and boasts of how important his men’s lives are to him. However, he’s more than happy to attack once a promotion is hindered. The ingenious about this scene is that none of these points is given directly, but rather implied. The generals seem to legitimize and reason about all of their ideas and decisions. Stanley Kubrick leaves everything to the viewer although he makes sure that the message is given. The General who claims that the life of a single man is more important than any decoration, orders the execution of 10 men only a few days later. Anyone watching the film would start questioning the motives of war as well as the men who give the orders. Is the protection of people the reason a country enters war or just an excuse for ambition, fame and money?

Then, we have our main character, representing what is left of honour and solidarity. His struggle against authority that sadly proves too strong an enemy along with his attempts to demonstrate the absurdity of certain actions are exactly the anti-war points of the film. Kirk Douglas is amazing and though the film wasn’t much noticed back in 1957, it is now regarded as one of the best in Douglas’ filmography.

Stanley Kubrick was still evolving back then, still experimenting with anything about the motion-picture industry. He hadn’t reached his top form yet, but it was the first time that he managed to convey his ideas and opinions through a film.When I watched his previous film (The Killing, 1956), I couldn’t see his style anywhere. This wasn’t the case here. I would dare to say that Paths of Glory was the first “Kubrickian” film with its thought-provoking directing and exploration of human nature. The bittersweet ending is probably the best example.

“Give the men a few minutes more”