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With Paths of Glory (1958), director Stanley Kubrick established himself not simply as the leading commercial filmmaker of his generation, but a world-class talent as well. Based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, this tragic tale of World War I was immediately compared on its release to such classics as The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front. But there’s an enormous difference between those films’ stories of innocents unstrung by the horrors of war and this outwardly cool/inwardly passionate protest drama about a disastrous French army maneuver and the courtmartial held in its wake.
Unlike any other war film of its kind, Paths of Glory divides its attention equally among officers and enlisted men, constructing a complex picture of a war fought not only on open battlefields, but in boardrooms as well. A thoroughgoing investigation of the terms “bravery” and “cowardice,” Paths of Glory offers far more than a mere “anti-war” statement, paring with almost surgical precision to the heart of the fear, hubris and mendacity that keep the war machine going.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. Preening, ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) is informed by his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) that the army’s top brass has elected to take action against a seemingly impregnable German stronghold. If Mireau’s troops triumph, a top promotion will be his. Ignoring advice that it would be utterly suicidal, Mireau orders an all-out advance by his forces on the German “ant-hill.” It is an utter disaster. Enraged by his failure, Mireau demands a court-martial for “cowardice” to take place the very next day. One man from each squadron is chosen by lot to stand trial. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), one of the officers leading the attack, sympathetic to the hopeless situation faced by his men, asks to defend them at the proceedings. A skilled lawyer in civilian life, Dax eloquently defends the soldiers, but he cannot prevent an outcome that was planned from the start. The men go to their deaths -- though Dax happens across an important piece of information that undoes Mireau at the last moment.
Kubrick makes it abundantly clear that Dax is the hero of the film, with Douglas—in a wonderfully disciplined performance—railing against injustice. But at the same time Kubrick adds an element of doubt. Is Dax, the passionate, sincere, “good” officer, at heart all that different from the “evil old men” he despises? Brave and forthright as he may be, isn’t Dax more than a little foolish in thinking some semblance of “truth” or “justice” might be wrested from the organized insanity of war?
The workings of that insanity are made clear in every one of Kubrick’s cool, crisp images, some giving off an almost newsreel-like sense of authenticity. The sequence in which the camera tracks dramatically through the trenches (Chapter 3) is justly famous. Kubrick’s staging of the attack itself (Chapter 6) is comparable to the finest work of Welles (Chimes at Midnight), Kurosawa (Ran) and Eisenstein (Alexander Nevsky). Its mud-encrusted horror contrasts sharply with the elegant surrounding of the chateau in which the courtmartial is staged (Chapter 9). But as Kubrick shows, both settings—one “savage,” the other “civilized”—are at heart the same.
Douglas’s performance, central as it is to the workings of the film, is not the whole show. Veteran character actors George Macready and Adolphe Menjou crown their long careers with brilliant portrayals of the martinet Mireau and his devious adversary Broulard. Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey are brilliant as the doomed soldiers. Wayne Morris as a truly cowardly lieutenant, Emile Meyer as a priest, and Susanne Christian (later Mrs. Stanley Kubrick) as a captured German girl offer incisive smaller performances.
Kubrick would go on todetail the workings of warfare in other more complex ways (Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket). Still, despite the passing of some thirty years, Paths of Glory remains one of his most lucid, powerful achievements.