Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | 88 minutes | drama, war | Actors: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick, Christiane Kubrick, Jerry Hausner, Peter Capell, Emile Meyer, Bert Freed, Kem Dibbs, Timothy Carey, Fred Bell, John Stein, Harold Benedict

Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ is often referred to as the celebrated director’s first true masterpiece. Kubrick’s controversial war film, adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name, focuses mainly on conflict, justice and the brutality of war. But ‘Paths of Glory’ isn’t just a simple anti-war story. This is a film with a clear take: war leads to abuse of power, a submission that wallows in utter absurdity and hypocrisy, and can turn us from average people into terrible monsters if we’re not careful. It’s a core idea that runs through much of Kubrick’s work, from “Dr. Strangelove’ (1964) to ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987). However, he has never managed to apply it so effectively and confrontingly as in the masterful ‘Paths of Glory’.

The story is set in 1916. A French regiment is ordered to attack Anthill, a heavily defended German zone. The attack ends in disastrous failure; the French suffer heavy casualties and none of their soldiers manage to reach German territory. General Mireau (George Macready) is furious, partly because of the rejection of his request to use the French troops as cannon fodder. To exonerate himself from guilt, Mireau orders three randomly selected soldiers from the regiment to be tried for cowardice and insubordination. The task of defending the accused is taken on by the idealistic Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Dax does everything in his power to save the three soldiers from certain death.

The French government, of course, was not amused when ‘Paths of Glory’ came out in 1957. There were several reasons for this. In addition to its critical portrayal of military leadership, a war film without a patriotic streak was extremely rare in the 1950s. This was a time when war movies were mostly set in World War II and the main characters were mostly heroic and honorable fighters. Stanley Kubrick quickly became a detested gentleman in France because of his contradictions. But many other countries also saw his film as a threat. In Spain the film was banned from cinemas under Franco’s rule and in Germany the film was withdrawn from the competition at the Berlin festival in order to maintain good relations with France.

Still, the film grew into a renowned classic over the years. It is not difficult to see why the film captures the imagination of many people. Famous are Kubrick’s endless shots through the trenches, which are always in a state of complete chaos. Bullets and grenades are flying around. Earth and grit continually clatter down on the soldiers. Their looks are tired, their postures tense. When ordered to fight, the camera follows them across the endless mud of a bombed-out no-man’s-land, with grenades constantly whizzing over their heads. The scenes of warfare are never long, but they nevertheless leave a lasting impression. Pure, merciless and yet always stylish. They have never been surpassed.

And then there’s Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. Douglas, who also acted as a producer on the film, is the beating heart of ‘Paths of Glory’. His character’s attitude is rigid and authoritarian, but don’t let that fool you; he is the only one with a visible conscience in a harsh and inhumane army. Only he is brave enough to stand up to his superiors and expose their wrongdoing. Colonel Dax is not a spotless character, but he is honest, enthusiastic and disinterested. Douglas plays the part with complete conviction. It’s hard not to cheer for his character, and it’s incredibly rewarding when he outsmarts his corrupt superiors. Kubrick originally wanted Gregory Peck in the role of Dax. However, Kirk Douglas makes it impossible to imagine that visually.

There are those who say that Stanley Kubrick struggled with human emotions in his movies. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In the case of ‘Paths of Glory’ one only has to watch the last, and also the best scene of the film. A captured German girl (played by Kubrick’s future wife Susanne Christiane) has to sing a song in a cafe full of drunken soldiers. The soldiers yell at her and bang their beer glasses roughly on the table. Then the girl starts to sing. The noise of the crowd dies away. She sings ‘Der treue Husar’, a well-known German national anthem. The soldiers gradually begin to hum along; they know the song, but not the words. Along with the soldiers, our anger also subsides. What remains is the most beautiful thing a film can bring about: pure and sincere emotion.

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