In 1945, a teenage Stanley Kubrick was given a job as staff photographer at Look magazine, where he published more than nine hundred striking images, most of them in the realist style of New York School street photography. By the end of the decade, he had taught himself to make movies, and with financial help from relatives, he became a pioneer of extremely low-budget, independent production. His first two features were the allegorical war picture Fear and Desire (1953) and the noir thriller Killer’s Kiss (1955), on both of which he served not only as producer and director but also as photographer, editor, and sound engineer. Then, in 1955, the preternaturally gifted Kubrick became a low-budget Hollywood director, joining forces with his contemporary the producer James B. Harris to make The Killing, a stylish heist film that was glowingly reviewed and much talked about within the industry but dumped into grind houses by its distributor, United Artists. His second film with Harris, a return to the theme of war, was even more impressive; Paths of Glory (1957), a scathing depiction of the murderous, face-saving machinations of an officer class, secured the young Kubrick’s reputation as a major talent.
The film originated when, on the strength of The Killing, Harris and Kubrick were briefly hired by MGM, where they proposed several projects that were rejected by the studio. Among these was an adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel Paths of Glory, which Kubrick remembered having read in his father’s library as a teenager. Inspired by a New York Times story about five French soldiers in World War I who were executed by firing squad, the novel provided a harrowing account of trench warfare and an appalling picture of how generals treated their troops as cannon fodder. Playwright Sydney Howard had authored a Broadway adaptation in 1938, but by the mid-1950s, the book was virtually forgotten. Despite Kubrick’s enthusiasm, MGM turned the idea down, chiefly because it feared such a film would have difficulty getting distribution in Europe. Undeterred, Kubrick continued to develop a screenplay, aided by pulp novelist Jim Thompson, who had worked on The Killing, and playwright and novelist Calder Willingham, who had contributed to other unproduced Harris-Kubrick projects at MGM. This document ultimately came to the attention of a powerful and intelligent star: the muscular, dimple-chinned, intensely emotional Kirk Douglas, who was so impressed by it and by Kubrick’s work on The Killing that he offered to take the leading role and to pressure United Artists into financing the film under the auspices of his own company, Bryna Productions. With Douglas’s support, Paths of Glory went before the cameras on locations near Munich, Germany, budgeted at $1 million, more than a third of which went to the star. Harris and Kubrick agreed to work for a percentage of the profits, if profits ever came.
The completed film is strongly marked by what came to be known as Kubrick’s style and favored themes: a mesmerizing deployment of wide-angle tracking shots and long takes, an ability to make a realistic world seem strange, an interest in the grotesque, and a fascination with the underlying irrationality of supposedly rational planning. World War I was a particularly apt subject for Kubrick: generated by a meaningless tangle of nationalist alliances, it resulted in more than eight million military deaths, most caused by benighted politicians and generals who arranged massive bombardments and suicidal charges over open ground. Significantly, the concept of black humor, which is central to Kubrick’s work, was first articulated by the protosurrealist Jacques Vaché, a veteran of trench warfare in World War I, and yet of the several major films about the war, only Paths of Glory depicts the conflict in all its cruel, almost laughably absurd logic (All Quiet on the Western Front, Grand Illusion, The Dawn Patrol, and Sergeant York are humanistic, romantic, or patriotic by comparison). No wonder Luis Buñuel was among its passionate admirers.
To find anything similar to this attitude toward war, we need to consult Kubrick’s other films on the subject. In most cases, he underlines war’s absurdity by making the true conflict internecine and the ostensible enemy either semi-invisible or nearly indistinguishable from the story’s protagonists. In Fear and Desire, the paradigmatic instance, the same actors play both sides in a mysterious battle, as if the film were trying to illustrate a famous line from Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” On the rare occasions when Kubrick’s soldiers have a close encounter with an Other from behind the lines, that person is either a doppelgänger or a woman. In Paths of Glory, the enemy is almost unseen, consisting mainly of lethal gunfire emanating from the smoke and darkness of no-man’s-land. The film differs from Kubrick’s normal pattern only in that, when French soldiers encounter a female German captive, she’s less an object of perverse desire and anxiety—as in Fear and Desire and Full Metal Jacket (1987)—than a maternal figure, producing a flood of repressed emotion and a momentary dissolution of psychic and bodily armor.
In one important way, however, Paths of Glory is quite atypical of Kubrick. Apart from Spartacus (1960), which also stars Kirk Douglas and over which Kubrick had relatively little control, it’s the only film he directed that has a protagonist with whom the audience can feel a straightforward, unproblematic identification. Colonel Dax, as portrayed by Douglas, is a loyal officer of a corrupt regime, but in most other ways he’s a paragon of heroic virtue. Handsome and brave, he takes the lead in a useless charge on the heavily fortified “Anthill,” picking his way through a withering storm of gunfire, crawling over casualties, and returning to the trench to try to rally reinforcements. Before the war, he happens also to have been “perhaps the foremost criminal lawyer in all of France.” When three enlisted men are arbitrarily selected to be executed for cowardice, he passionately and eloquently comes to their defense. After the executions, he denounces the general in charge in patented Douglas style, body and face contorted and voice pitched somewhere between a sob and a shout: “You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man and you can go to hell before I ever apologize to you again!”
Neither Cobb’s novel nor the theatrical adaptation by Howard is so much like a melodrama—a form Kubrick usually avoided but one basic to the liberal social-problem pictures in which Douglas was interested. Both earlier versions end abruptly with the executions (presented offstage in the play), and in neither does Dax lead a charge across no-man’s-land and serve as defense attorney at the court-martial. Cobb’s description of the attack on the German position, which he calls “the Pimple,” lacks even a trace of heroic spectacle. The film, on the other hand, is a star vehicle, giving Douglas the opportunity for derring-do. It even obeys the unwritten rule of most Kirk Douglas movies after his breakthrough role in Champion (1949): at some point, he will be seen without his shirt, as in his opening scene here, which has no equivalent in the novel or play.
At one stage, the screenplay was even more melodramatic. In his autobiography, Douglas says that when the production moved to Munich, Kubrick tried to reinstate the earlier version of the script by him and Thompson, which ended with a last-minute reprieve of the three condemned soldiers. Douglas flew into a rage and insisted on the version he had originally read. This contained revisions by Willingham, who, before his death in 1995, claimed that he was the author of “99 percent” of Paths of Glory. Actually, the final screenplay retains a good deal of Kubrick and Thompson, plus many important lines from Cobb’s novel. Thompson’s biographer, Robert Polito, shrewdly suggests that in momentarily proposing the other version, Kubrick may have been playing “ego chess” with Douglas, hoping to avoid further buildup of the star’s role. (In an unpublished 1962 interview with Terry Southern, Kubrick admitted there had been a discussion about reverting to the earlier screenplay—which, in addition to saving the three men, makes Dax a more ambiguous character—but denied that he ever seriously intended a happy ending: “There were some people who said you’ve got to save the men, but of course it was out of the question . . . It would just be pointless. Also, [the executions] really happened.”)
Whatever the case, there was a productive conflict between Douglas, who in print has called the director a “talented shit,” and Kubrick, whose lifelong motto might have been “silence, exile, and cunning.” Douglas was a flamboyant personality whose acting style and worldview lent themselves to melodramatic effects, whereas Kubrick was a dark, reclusive satirist who tended to parody or “quote” melodrama, as in such later films as Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Barry Lyndon (1975). Between them, they fashioned a dark, emotionally disturbing film in which Douglas serves as the voice of reason and liberal humanism, tempering Kubrick’s harsh, traumatic view of European history.
The film received extraordinarily favorable reviews and gained Kubrick considerable cultural, if not financial, capital. (Unfortunately, MGM had been right about the European market. Paths of Glory was such a powerful indictment of military arrogance that the French government managed to have it dropped from the Berlin Film Festival and banned in France and Switzerland for two decades.) In a sense, Kubrick had won his battle for authorship, because what most people remember about the film is not so much the heroism of Colonel Dax as the grim photographic grisaille of trench warfare and the execution of three innocent men in the name of patriotic honor.
Kubrick is especially good at drawing sharp visual and aural contrasts between the château where the generals plan the war and the trenches where the war is fought. The Schleissheim Palace outside Munich, where much of the action takes place, later became a location for another film that depicts upper-class intrigues amid the architecture of a decadent past—Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad—and the opening sequence in the palace interior, where Adolphe Menjou suavely manipulates the ramrod stiff but insecure George Macready, was influenced by one of Kubrick’s favorite directors, Max Ophuls, who had died on the day it was staged. The camera dollies around a large room filled with artifacts of empire, engaging in a perversely Ophulsian choreography, while Kubrick, with the aid of cameraman George Krause, draws on his news photographer experience, making good use of natural light, deep-focus compositions, and sonic reverberations. In contrast, the trench warfare involves a signature Kubrick effect: wide-angle, almost phallic tracking shots down a sinister corridor or demonic tunnel. Dax’s march through the trench in preparation for an attack, lasting approximately two minutes and containing eight cuts, is an iconic moment for both the film and the director. Everything is in shades of gray, and the weary men along either side of the trench (played by a German police unit) have a sharply individuated, almost documentary authenticity. Dax walks grimly forward amid the rushing, high-pitched screams of inbound shells and earsplitting explosions that scatter shrapnel. In the penultimate shot, the camera, assuming his point of view, moves through a cloud of smoke in which only a few ghostly figures are visible, as if it were journeying into an underworld where the men are already dead.
The ceremony of execution, seen against the background of the château, gains impact from Kubrick’s deliberate pacing and dynamic manipulation of wide-angle perspectives. The camera advances slowly and inexorably toward the three stakes where the men are tied, and the elaborately drawn-out ritual, staged on a parade ground filled with military and civilian observers, looks obscenely overblown. The château looms like a confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s theory that every achievement of advanced civilization is also a monument to barbarism, but when the shooting happens, its ruthless efficiency and brutality are faced square on, with no picturesque embellishment.
After this horror, the audience is given a moment of relief when the German captive (Susanne Christian, who became Mrs. Stanley Kubrick) sings to a group of rowdy soldiers. The scene was written by Willingham over Kubrick’s initial objection, but its success has more to do with the director’s taste than with the writing. Kubrick avoids sentimentality by virtue of naturalistic lighting, nicely selected close-ups of nonprofessional faces, and skillful modulation from a mood of carnival to a mood of grief. The song, rendered in soft, amateurish fashion, is Frantzen-Gustav Gerdes’s “The Faithful Hussar,” which dates from the Napoleonic period. The French soldiers seem to understand the German lyrics, which end with “Oh please, Mother, bring a light, / My sweetheart is going to die” (my translation). Immediately afterward, Colonel Dax is informed that his troops have been ordered back into action. Gerald Fried’s nondiegetic music picks up Gerdes’s sweet melody, orchestrating it as a military march. The shattering film has offered only a brief nostalgic interlude before the barbaric system reasserts itself.