Paths of Glory (1957)

When most cinephiles think of the films of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, most often they’ll ‘default’ to titles like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), ‘The Shining’ (1980), or ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987). Arguments can also be made for the inclusion of ‘Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964) and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) too. Truth be told…THIS is another film that should get more recognition for being part of Kubrick’s filmography. As familiar as I am with the aforementioned films (and others on his resume’), I have to admit that I knew very little about this one going in. I’d heard it referenced in relation to Ole Stanley’s list of cinematic endeavors before, but for some reason, it never fully connected in my mind as being a ‘Stanley Kubrick’ movie. Until now.
‘Paths of Glory’ takes place in France in 1916, at the bloody height of The First World War. During the muddy and miserable stalemate of the trench warfare campaign, a pompous, self-serving lunatic of a French General, spurned on by the promise of medals and promotion, unrealistically tasks the French 701st Regiment, commanded by ‘Colonel Dax’ (Kirk Douglas), to storm and take a thus far impenetrable German military position on the other side of the treacherous ‘No Man’s Land’. Despite the obvious futility of this order, ‘Col. Dax’ has no choice but to obey the command. As expected, the raid fails spectacularly, resulting in the violent deaths of countless French soldiers while the survivors are forced to retreat under fire. Blinded by ignorant frustration and blind ambition, the French General who issued the original command, sets out to punish the regiment for letting him down. He first tries to do this by ordering French artillery to rain shells down on the French trench-line, where an entire division of troops were pinned down by withering German mortar and machine gun fire. Luckily this order is refused by the duty-bound artillery officer. The General’s next move is to have one man picked from each of the 3 divisions insanely accused of ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’, to take the punishment for everyone accused. Incidentally, the punishment for the crime is Death by Firing Squad. The idealistic ‘Col. Dax’ is tasked with the defense of the prisoners, which he whole-heartedly tackles…only to be thwarted at seemingly every turn by the insanity and incompetence of the French Military Justice system. What ensues is a masterfully frustrating piece of Kubrickian cinematic dehumanization.
I believe this was Kubrick’s second or third feature film, but already, even at this relatively early stage in the man’s career, he was able to command impressively lavish productions with a deft hand (and dozens upon dozens of takes). Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of top-notch material on display with this title.
Right off the bat, this movie feels surprisingly genuine. MANY films from this era (40’s-50’s) have a built-in stiltedness to them. They often feel overly theatrical. Happily, that is not the case here. There was an obvious attempt to lend authenticity to the proceedings…with everything from the sets and props to the locations and manner with which most of the acting is handled coming off as genuine. Of course, there’s a couple scenes that are clearly played up for dramatic effect, but their tone is darkly and effectively satirical…a trait that would pop up frequently in future Kubrick productions.
One of the first things I appreciated was the inclusion of a short sequence where the idea of ‘shell shock’ was introduced. Typically, war films from this period often came with a cartoonish ‘Sgt. Rock’ mentality. War as a Manly Man’s sport. Here, they were brave enough to acknowledge the cost of war on the human psyche and the human soul. Showing a French soldier driven insane and useless to the war effort by the effects of his environment MAY have helped the subversive film incur the wrath of many French-supporting nations, on top of France itself, at the time of its original release. The scene during which it happens is brilliantly orchestrated, with Kubrick using one of his patented long dolly shots following the out-of-touch-with-reality General parading through the trench, giving his scripted greeting to random soldiers, only to stumble on one who’s brain has been clearly destroyed by orders from men like the General himself. It’s a sobering, anti-war sentiment that I was glad to see the film embrace.
The battle sequences are expertly staged, with hundreds of men charging through the mud and water of the cratered ‘No Mans Land’ in long ‘tracking’ shots, sometimes with a ‘shaky cam’ aesthetic that inevitably reminded me of one of my favorite war films EVER, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998). I also liked that when a random soldier was cut down by gunfire, it wasn’t a cheezy ‘clutch chest, spin, fall down’ type of death. Men dropped unceremoniously as bullets hit, rolling limply into water-filled craters or slamming lifelessly into the dirt. Again…the lack of theatrics was appreciated.
Speaking of favorite war films, not too surprisingly, many aspects of ‘Paths of Glory’ acutely reminded me of Kubrick’s later cinematic commentary on the bullshit Vietnam War that is 1987’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Several of his compositions and uses of music, not to mention the entire ‘war as a soul-killer’ aspect of the narrative, were clearly taken from ‘Paths of Glory’ for application to ‘Full Metal Jacket’. One sequence in particular stood out like a sore thumb to me as a stylistic and narrative parallel. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ ends with the now classic scene of the Lusthog Squad patrolling through the smoke and flames of the destroyed ruins of Hue City after their bloody encounter with the female Vietcong sniper; robotically singing the Mickey Mouse song and strongly suggesting the mercurial undercurrent of absurdity and insanity that propels modern (or not so modern) conflict. Here, we see a collection of ragged French soldiers treat a pretty German girl (who Kubrick himself would later go on to marry) as though she were a tear-stained piece of cattle on stage. It’s only after she fearfully breaks into song that they calm down and, almost trance-like, hum along with her en mass, showing a distinct lack of individuality and playing off like discarded automatons with a dark, singular purpose. It could also be said that ‘Full Metal Jacket’s ‘Alabama Black Snake’ hooker scene also carries a similar ‘flavor’ of dehumanization of both the soldiers and the poor woman/victim in their sights.
All in all, ‘Paths of Glory’ is a film that any fan of Stanley Kubrick’s work SHOULD see. Not only is it a technical masterpiece, boasting numerous long and difficult takes and gorgeous compositions, but it also clearly taps into the man’s life-long obsession with the erosion of ‘humanity’ through difficult or soul-destroying circumstances seemingly outside ‘our’ control…but also of ‘our’ creation. Kirk Douglas brings an intensity and a sense of compassion to his ‘Col. Dax’ in a performance that feels like he genuinely believed in the material (which apparently, he did….box office returns be damned!), and is supported by many other solidly realized characters. The staging of the massive battle scenes is highly admirable and the overall direction, not too surprisingly, is legitimately ahead of it’s time. ‘Paths of Glory’ is an epic-in-scope look at the insane politics of war and the consequences of ‘armchair’ officers sending young men to die for their own selfish gain, and it’s a message that resonates today, with so many conflicts flaring up around our planet at any given time; conflicts stemming from the decisions of people on both sides who won’t actually fight themselves, but will cast forth legions of human fodder to carry out their self-serving mandates. The fact that whole countries condemned this film’s initial release speaks of it’s unflinching look at the truth of the matter, uncomfortable though it may be. ‘Paths of Glory’ is a solid film, immaculately constructed with a message, and one that deserves more recognition as part of Stanley Kubrick’s note-worthy contributions to the History of Cinema.

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