Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957)


(director/writer: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriters: Jim Thompson/Calder Willingham/from a Humphrey Cobb novel; cinematographer: Georg Krause; editor: Eva Kroll; cast: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Corporal Paris), Adolphe Menjou (General George Broulard), George Macready (General Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lieutenant Roget), Ralph Meeker (Corp. Paris), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Private Arnaud), Christiane Kubrick (German Singer), Jeffrey Hausner (Proprietor), Peter Capell (Colonel Judge), Emile Meyer (Priest), Bert Freed (Sergeant Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Private Lejeune), Timothy Carey (Private Ferol), Fred Bell (Shell Shock Victim), Harold Benedict (Capt. Nichols), John Stein (Capt. Rousseau); Runtime: 86; Bryna/Harris-Kubrick/United Artists; 1957)
“… as in most Kubrick films it is not dated, in fact, it seems to get better with age.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stanley Kubrick’s first big financed ‘A’ film and first film with a major Hollywood star. Kirk Douglas liked the script thinking it would give him a chance to work on a quality film with a strong social message, and thereby he got his production company to back it. Kubrick prior to this film was a photographer for Look magazine and directed the low-budget noir films “The Killers” (46) and “Killer’s Kiss” (55). This film is based on a true event and was filmed in Germany, with the German extras playing the French soldiers in the trenches.

The film must have ruffled many feathers, because it was banned in France for about 20 years. The U.S. Army refused to show it on its theater release date. It was also banned for a time in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany. This antiwar film, one of the best ever made, much like Renoir’s masterpiece “The Grand Illusion,” does a great job of criticizing the role of the French military higher-ups in WW1. The movie turns most of its attention to the action taking place in a military courtroom court-martial and the interplay between the officer’s political maneuvering for power. It culminates in the unjustified court-martial for cowardice of three randomly picked soldiers, showing how callow the military is for taking these soldier’s lives in so arbitrary a fashion. Its battle scenes played like a documentary, with striking attention turning to details of life in the trenches and how the men were confined to such dark and squalid circumstances, which is contrasted with how the staff officers live in the luxury of chateaus. Kubrick’s masterpiece was more cynical and gritty than Renoir’s very poetic and humane indictment of war. Kubrick hit harder at his insanity of war theme.

It should also be pointed out that the ambitious Kubrick rewrote the original script to give the film a more traditional Hollywood upbeat ending, much to Kirk Douglas’s surprise and disapproval. Kubrick, reportedly, wanted the film to be a box office success and was willing to forgo some artistic integrity. The controversial ending might be termed a cop-out by many, while others found its sentimentality quite appropriate and cynical enough.

The two did not get along well on the set, but that did not stop Douglas from years later requesting the very talented Kubrick to direct “Spartacus (60),” the last Hollywood film Kubrick ever directed. Incidentally, in my opinion, the major flaw in Paths of Glory wasn’t the taut script, which was lucid and hard-hitting, but it was in Kirk Douglas’s far-reaching performance (though a strong performance and possibly the best one in Kirk’s career). But, as forceful and necessary as Kirk’s performance was, it still allowed the film to become centered around him rather than on the universality of the story unfolding in its very natural and engrossing way about the horrors, evils, and insanity of war.

Kubrick aimed for a critique both of war and of class systems. He accomplished this by pessimistically and cynically showing how the privilege class cares only about themselves and how its power is corrupting.

The action picks up in France in 1916. We are told that World War I has dragged on for two years and that it became a stalemate of fortified trenches and heavy casualties. War began between Germany and France on August 3, 1914. Five weeks later, the German Army had come within 18 miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River and in a series of unexpected counterattacks, drove the Germans back. The Front was stabilized and shortly afterward developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. By 1916, after two grisly years of trench warfare, the battle lines had changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards – and paid for in the lives taken of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

The film opens with the French General Staff deciding from the safety of their luxurious chateau, far off enemy lines, that it is time to attack the “Ant Hill” tomorrow. The object of the attack is of no strategic value, an impregnable fortified hilltop held by the Germans. The two cunning and detestable generals–the commanding staff general, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), who asks the field general, Paul Mireau (George Macready), to take this impossible suicide mission, despite knowing it will kill most of the men. At first Mireau says he can’t do it, he will lose too many men. But then Broulard says that a promotion awaits, there will be consideration for another star. Mireau then consents and arrogantly visits the troops in the trenches, accompanied by his ass-kissing aide, Major Saint-Auban (Anderson). The general manages to slap a shell-shocked soldier (Bell) while rallying the troops, saying there is no such a thing as shell-shock. The general transfers him out of his outfit, not wanting cowards in his company.

The general confers with the company commander of the 701st, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a criminal trial lawyer in civilian life, and appeals to Dax’s patriotism to go through with the attack. After Dax says it is not possible to do, Mireau says “Show me a patriot and I’ll show you an honest man.” Dax replies, quoting from Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism… is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Finally, Dax is convinced to lead the attack when he is threatened with loss of command. He then becomes subservient to the general and says he doesn’t want to desert his men.

The attack the next morning is a colossal failure, as the men who do attack suffer heavy losses. It is made worst by a commanding officer’s cowardice, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), who never orders his men to leave the trenches, leaving the first line of soldiers without backup. Mireau watches the battle begin from the safety of his chateau, drinking a toast to France as the battle begins. Mireau soon becomes upset at the men for not taking the Ant Hill and for stopping their attack and orders the artillery commanders to fire on his own troops, which they refuse to do even when threatened with court-martial. They ask for that command to be a written one.

The next day Mireau meets with Broulard and requests that a 100 men be randomly chosen as scapegoats and executed as a lesson for cowardice in battle. He warns, this is to serve as a lesson for the rest of the troops. Broulard suggests that they make it 12 men. But Mireau, not to be undone in the generosity of the moment, says let’s make it 3 and have the 701st’s three commanding officers choose one from each outfit. Broulard says we better get a court-martial for them and make it legal. Dax when he hears of this insanity, asks to be the defense counsel for the accused and is granted that right.

Dax will meet the men chosen to die in their cell. They areCorporal Paris (Meeker), Private Arnaud (Turkel), and Private Ferol (Carey). All of them express shock at what has happened to them and how they were chosen. Corporal Paris was chosen by Lieutenant Roget because the officer murdered Lejeune (Dibbs) on patrol and Paris knew that. Arnaud, a former medal-awarded hero, was chosen by a random drawing of lots. The weepy Ferol was selected because his captain believed he was a “social undesirable.” Since the trial is fixed, the men are found guilty and are given a last meal in their cells, which they refuse to eat because they think it is drugged. They are also visited by the priest (Meyer), who hears their confessions and offers what Arnaud calls sanctimonious pat answers for what has happened to them. Being drunk from the meal’s wine, he attacks the priest but is knocked down by Paris causing him to be placed on a stretcher when the men are executed in the morning.

Dax had told General Broulard about the artillery commanders who were charging General Mireau with ordering his own men fired upon the night before the execution, giving him the written statements of all the witnesses who confirmed that this happened. But the general refused to stop the execution, instead he waited for after the execution to tell Mireau that there will be an investigation about that matter so the military name is not stained. Later, he calls Dax in and informs him that he can have Mireau’s position. Angrily Dax turns him down as Broulard looks at him incredulously, as if he were a fool, saying you really cared about saving those three men: “You are an idealist.” Dax reproves the generals on their despicable and inhumane actions, and is forever shut out of the privileged military club.

As Dax leaves the general, he comes across the men in a tavern where a young German woman (Kubrick’s wife Christiane) is forced to sing as the men act like brutes. When she starts to sing and tears roll down her face, they eventually become quiet and are moved to softly sing along with her. Dax is told by his sergeant (Freed) that orders have come and that it is time for the men to return to the front. Dax tells him to give the men a few minutes.

The film is direct and powerful. It wouldn’t have been banned for so long if it didn’t hit home with its hard message. There is no doubt about its message being man’s inhumanity to man, that war is insane, of military incompetence, of class differences resulting in special privileges for some, of hypocrisy, and most of all, that power is corrupting.

It is magnificently shot, as the trenches are frighteningly real and incomprehensible to understand until seen. Kirk Douglas is overwhelming in his stabilizing role, but in my opinion too much so. But, nevertheless, his anger is warranted, as he is the emotional glue that holds the film together and gives humanity some measure for hope. Though I came away from the film feeling no hope. I was cynical of everyone’s motives, including Dax’s. After all he still led the men to their slaughter, even when knowing this would be so. To call him a hero, as the ending of the film implies by its crass sentimentality, just left me with a cold feeling. A real hero is someone who is brave and beyond reproach, someone who would have become a pacifist after that incredulous suicide battle plan and mock trial. He would have walked away from the war.

Adolphe Menjou and George Macready came through with outstanding performances, each one an incarnation of Machiavellian evil. When on the screen, their performances are like machine-gun fire directed at you.

There is much to chew on as far as ideas, despite how simple the film might appear on first viewing, and thereby lies its true greatness. It seems to make a timeless argument against war; and, as in most Kubrick films it is not dated, in fact, it seems to get better with age.