Movie Project #19: Paths of Glory [1957]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Paths of Glory [1957]

Paths of Glory [1957]
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready
Runtime: 88 minutes

War is hell. I don’t know if there is a director that has illustrated this better than Stanley Kubrick. His 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, was a pitch black comedy that satirized the Cold War, and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket disturbingly portrayed the dehumanization of soldiers during the Vietnam War. With Paths of Glory, Kubrick shows us how those doing the actual fighting are just pawns in the grand scheme of combat.

Set during World War I, Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a commanding officer in the French Army who is ordered by his superiors to embark on a “suicide mission” to take over the German position known as the Anthill. His superiors, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Mireau (George Macready), know the attack is ill-fated, but Mireau convinces himself it will succeed once he learns he may get a promotion afterward. Natually, Dax objects to the assault, but there is little he can do about it.

Dax and his soldiers commence the attack, and the results are as expected. Numerous casualties fall to the ground as the first wave makes absolutely no progress. Another group of soldiers bluntly refuse to even leave their trench because death is inevitable. Dax retreats and tries to rally the next group of men, but ultimately he realizes the onslaught is futile and he aborts the mission.

Furious that his soldiers are “cowards”, General Mireau demands punishment for their actions. After initially requesting court martials for 100 soldiers, the General is talked down to reducing the number to three — one from each company. While knowing the trial is going to be a total farce, Colonel Dax decides to defend the men anyway. He makes a strong and valiant case for each man, but it doesn’t matter. The three soldiers are sentenced to death, just as expected.

There is no happy ending in Paths of Glory. While the vast majority of directors during this time period would have opted for some sort of positive resolution, Kubrick prefers to show the sheer brutality of atrocities committed during war. While the commanders and generals make political powerplays, the private soldiers are sent to do their work for them while getting little recognition in return. It’s disgusting, but that is war in a nutshell.

Paths of Glory [1957]

It’s amazing how well Paths of Glory holds up today, some 50+ years later. The anti-war message is loud and clear, and it resonates just as much today as it did back then. It certainly helps that Kubrick was behind the camera for this one, as his work in this film is legendary. Some of the long tracking shots are unforgettable, especially when we follow Dax through the trenches as he makes his way past frightened soldiers with gunfire and explosions going off nearby. The battle scene as the men push toward Anthill is remarkable.

Even though it was strange to see American actors posing as French officers, I could not imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas in the lead role. He is phenomenal here, delivering a performance for the ages. The supporting cast is also terrific, led by Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready.

Paths of Glory runs at a crisp and concise 88 minutes, and I almost wish it went a little longer. While I wouldn’t consider this one of Kubrick’s best (a testament to his outstanding career), this is still a powerful movie with a strong message.