Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory is an anti-war film about a group of French soldiers who are accused of cowardice during a battle as their colonel tries to defend them against these charges. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and screenplay by Kubrick, Jim Thompson, and Calder Willingham, the film explores war at its ugliest as it’s set during the first World War. Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, and George Macready. Paths of Glory is a chilling anti-war drama from Stanley Kubrick.
It’s 1916 during World War I as the trench warfare between the French and Germans is reaching a breaking point where General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) of the French General Staff asks his insubordinate in General Mireau (George Macready) to lead the attack. Mireau accepts the job in hopes for a big promotion thinking it will succeed as he goes to the trenches to inspect where he encounters a few shell-shocked soldiers and its leader Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). The two officers discuss their plan of attack where Dax is convinced taking that hill would be impossible as it will kill lots of men but Mireau remains convinced that the mission will succeed. The drunken Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) heads a scouting report Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) and another soldier where things go bad when the soldier doesn’t return where Paris makes a discovery about what happened.
On the day of the battle, Dax leads the soldiers to attack and capture the hill but the results become extremely impossible as a regiment refuses to move outside of the trenches. Mireau is angered by this as he asks for artillery to fire on his own troops but gets into an argument with Artillery Captain Rousseau (John Stein) who wants a signed paperwork for the attack. The battle is over as Mireau wants punishment on what he believes is cowardice though Dax refutes the claim after what he went through in battle. Dax reluctantly asks his officers to get three different men to answer the charges of cowardice as Corporal Paris, Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), and Private Arnuad (Joe Turkel) are chosen despite their innocence. Dax defends them in their court-martial trial where he realizes that not even his passionate defense will help these men as they’re set to face execution.
With the execution happening as the soldiers are anguished over what is to happen, Colonel Dax’s discover Captain Rousseau’s reports over his conversation with Mireau. After reporting it to Broulard in hopes to save his men and expose Mireau, it isn’t enough where Dax realizes the games that Broulard is playing would undermine everything he stands for.
The film is about a colonel trying to defend three young soldiers from a general’s blunder where he realizes that the general might get away with it and three men will die for his mistakes. It’s a film that revels into the idea of war as it involves officers trying to create a positive spin on battle where they’re willing to risk thousands of soldiers into an impossible situation where they’re killed. Leading all of this is a staff general who is masterminding everything for the good what he thinks will be for the good of the country. Helping him is a general who really becomes a lackey for this officer because he thinks the success of taking that hill will get him a promotion and prestige. Then there’s this idealistic colonel, who was once a defense attorney, who knows more about his soldiers and what they’re dealing with as he is at the center of the battlefield trying to rally his soldiers into fighting only to face the impossible.
The screenplay that Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, and Calder Willingham create explores the fallacies of war where there’s soldiers who are aware that they’re fighting something that is impossible. They know they’re going to get killed but they don’t want to die as cowards. Things get worse when Colonel Dax learns that they were going to be killed by their own guns during battle all because they wouldn’t move out of their trenches amidst a barrage of artillery fire. While the battle scenes and other combat-related parts of the film only takes a portion of the film. A lot of is set outside of the war ground where officers try to devise what to do or how to create damage control to not deal with public embarrassment.
By blaming three innocent soldiers for one general’s mistake, it’s up to Colonel Dax to defend them in a court-martial trial but is faced with power that is above him. There are things in the courtroom where all of these officers are listening to what Dax and these men are saying but they could care less where Dax would make a passionate monologue about the decision they’re about to make. That decision would unveil lots of harsh truths about the fate of these men as they’re really just pawns in an ugly game where they have no control of what they can do and their lives have no meaning to these men sitting in chairs inside a mansion. It displays a disgusting act of humanity in the part of these men as a colonel is the one trying to defy them where what he would get in the end would be a real insult. It’s a truly engrossing screenplay that suggests the fallacy of war in the hands of men who care about prestige rather than humanity.
Kubrick’s direction is truly entrancing for the way he creates tension and suspense in and outside the battlefield yet it is still focused on this theme of conflict. Notably a conflict on morals where men are forced to be put into positions driven by the mad desire of other men. There’s a lot of tension that goes in the trenches where Kubrick has the character of Mireau walking towards the camera as it tracks his movement inside these trenches where soldiers salute him. It’s among some of the more stylish shots that goes in the battlefield where there’s a chilling scene where three men are scouting at night to see what is happening where it’s all about the emotions and sense of fear that is happening.
There’s a lot of these terrifying shots of men trekking around the battlefield where they have to evade all of this gunfire around them and through this chaos. It is clear that these men are facing the impossible as there’s a lot of tension outside where Mireau is trying to talk to Captain Rousseau to fire at the group of soldiers not wanting to move but Rousseau refuses because what Mireau is doing is dishonorable in the game of war. Once the film moves out of the battlefield and inside these lavish German palaces where the top officers and generals are sitting comfortably in chairs and eating. It becomes a courtroom film of sorts but there’s a feeling that things won’t play fairly because it’s all about these men in great uniforms as they’re trying to deal with a colonel and his accused soldiers. For these soldiers, they’re picked for these accusation of cowardice where one is a social misfit, one is chosen randomly, and another is picked because of personal reasons. Kubrick has them inside a dark room where they’re all trying to deal with the fate that is set upon them.
There’s tension in the room as Kubrick has his camera capturing all of this drama while there’s a party going on inside the mansion. The film’s aftermath where Dax confronts Mireau and Broulard over what happened at the battlefield reveals far more harsh truths. The direction is very intimate but also telling in the way the fate of three innocent soldiers are played and how Dax is really one of them despite wearing a prestigious uniform. There’s an air of sentimentality that is followed where the film’s final scene is a sobering one because of the sense of loss that is happening. Particularly as Dax is watching this very powerful moment only to realize that a war is still going on but he says something that is quite sobering to end the film. That ending manages to work as it is an indication of the power Kubrick has as a filmmaker as he crafts a very majestic but visceral anti-war film that rings true about its horror and fallacies.
Cinematographer George Krause does incredible work with the film‘s very evocative cinematography from the gorgeous interiors with its shading to help set a mood for the film to the nighttime exterior in the scouting scene to help create an air of suspense. Editor Eva Kroll does fantastic work with the editing by creating intense rhythmic cuts for some of the film‘s battle scenes as well as a few transitional dissolves to help the film move at a brisk pace. Art director Ludwig Reiber does excellent work with the set pieces such as the lavish halls in the mansion that the officers meet at to the more claustrophobic room that Dax lives in to establish their different personalities.
Costume designer Ilse Dubois does wonderful work with the costumes to establish the uniforms these men wear from the more ragged but still refined look of Dax to the more prestigious uniforms with medals for the characters of Mireau and Broulard. The sound work of Martin Muller is great for the way the sounds of gunfire is heard throughout the film‘s intense battle scene along with the sparse but atmospheric scenes in the court-martial trial where there‘s a great mix in the way Dax‘s voice is heard in the hall where he gives out his passionate monologue. The film’s score by Gerald Fried is superb for its military-driven score to play up the sense of war as well as low-key orchestral pieces for some of the dramatic scenes.
The film’s cast is brilliant as it features some memorable small roles from Fred Bell as a shell-shocked soldier, Emile Meyer as Father Dupree, Jerry Hausner as a café proprietor, Bert Freed as Staff Sergeant Boulanger, Wayne Morris as the drunken Lieutenant Roget, John Stein as Artillery Captain Rousseau, and Stanley Kubrick’s then-future wife Christiane as the German singer at the end of the film. Other noteworthy performances include Joe Turkel as the anguished Private Arnaud, Timothy Carey as the emotionally-troubled Private Ferol, and Ralph Meeker as the no-nonsense yet cautious Corporal Paris.
Adolphe Menjou is excellent as General Broulard who masterminds all of the things that is happening as a staff member while trying to spin things for the good of the military. George Macready is great as the immoral General Mireau whose mistakes has him trying to do things the wrong way while becoming a target for Dax as it’s a truly incredible role for Macready. Finally, there’s Kirk Douglas in a tremendous performance as the idealistic Colonel Dax who represents all that is good in humanity where he tries to save the lives of three accused men while dealing with both Mireau and Broulard for how they try to deal with things.
Paths of Glory is an outstanding anti-war film from Stanley Kubrick that features a remarkable performance from Kirk Douglas. The film is among one of the great films about war for the way it explores humanity and ambition in the face of war. It’s also very engaging for the way Kubrick captures the terror of war as well as the way war is conducted out of the battlefield. In the end, Paths of Glory is a chilling yet intoxicating film from Stanley Kubrick.
Stanley Kubrick Films: Fear & Desire - Killer’s Kiss - The Killing - Spartacus - Lolita - Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - 2001: A Space Odyssey - A Clockwork Orange - Barry Lyndon - The Shining - Full Metal Jacket - Eyes Wide Shut
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