Paths of Glory (1957)
Release Date: December 20th, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Stanley Kubrick Actors: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson
oo shocking and frank to be made 25 years earlier when the story was originally published (a novel by Humphrey Cobb), “Paths of Glory” is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, powerful war picture that isn’t so much anti-war as it is anti-politics, anti-corruption, and anti-authoritarianism (or against followship and the failure to question authority). Its title, a cynical swipe from a famous Thomas Gray elegy (“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”), rings out with the frequently minimized horrors of combat realism. With exhilarating action sequences, including a Normandy Beach-styled battle charge, tension-filled courtroom drama, and the scrutinizing of army morals, the film is an unforgettably moving experience.
In 1916 France, General Paul Mireau (George Macready) is challenged by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to take the impenetrable Ant Hill, a longstanding German stronghold. Mireau’s ego, ambition, and a potential promotion fuel his decision to proceed with the suicide mission – one in which more than 50% casualties are anticipated. The actual attack is executed by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a man who previously worked as a criminal defense lawyer, who now as a stalwart soldier has his doubts about the operation. During the assault, the 701st regiment fails to advance, partially from gunfire barrages and partially out of fear. Eventually they are even ordered to retreat, but not until after the enraged Mireau orders ally batteries to fire upon his own troops. If they won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones.
After the ordeal utterly fails, the furious leader demands that an example be made of the entire battalion. Someone must take the blame, but Dax and Broulard convince him to cut the scapegoats down to three. The men are selected by various methods – one is a social undesirable, one draws the wrong straw, and another is chosen because his superior dislikes him. They are court-martialed and charged with cowardice. While Mireau is a bit too anxious to see “justice” meted out, clearly concerned with demoralization of the soldiers and covering up his own poor decisions, the men are given a mockery of human justice with a sham legal proceeding. With no character witnesses, no introduction of evidence, no written indictment, no records being kept, and no reasonable conclusions for guilt, their trial is monumentally less than fair.
Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick (after “The Killing” in 1956 and before “Lolita” in 1962), “Paths of Glory” is a striking, tragic, and infuriating piece, bringing to light rarely filmed subject matter. Approached with sincerity and utilizing phenomenal acting, it possesses the overwhelming tension of an uninterrupted, roaring snare drum roll. Highlighting the futility of war (both on the battlefield and under rigorous command), the faults of military leadership and the controversially subservient role of army pawns demonstrates that the objective here isn’t equitable conduct, but rather the concealment of venomous ambition, fatal errors, pride, and blame.
– Mike Massie