Before directing Paths of Glory in 1957 Stanley Kubrick had been a largely unknown voice in the world of cinema, his previous film The Killing (1956) was a failure commercially but it did receive enough critical acclaim to hint at Kubrick’s untapped potential as a director.
Paths of Glory like all of Kubrick’s films was adapted from a existing piece of written work, this film was adapted from a 1935 Humphrey Cobb novel of the same by Kubrick and two other screenwriter. Kubrick’s version of course changes quite a few things from the novel although the film is still a pretty loyal adaption.
Kubrick’s third feature film The Killing (1955) was a massive leap in quality compared to his previous two feature films – Fear and Desire (1953) and Killers Kiss (1955), but the young director was to make an even bigger leap with his fourth feature film. Paths of Glory was given a relatively modest budget of $935,000 with around a third of it going to the star of the film Kurt Douglas, Bryna Productions (owned by Douglas) was also involved in the film’s production.
Douglas happened to watch The Killing and he was very impressed by the films quality and was eager to work with Stanley Kubrick. I think Douglas’s performance in Paths of Glory is up there with one of his strongest and you could a large amount of credit to Kubrick who Douglas would work with again three years later on Spartacus (1960).
Paths of Glory is a anti-war film which takes place during World War 1, the story is told from the perspective of a regiment in the French army who in a violent conflict with the Germans, the year is 1916 and the French are struggling to contain their German counterparts. The opening shot is of a beautiful chateau and we see a small car approaching the building accompanied by a large group of soldiers.
The first character we see is Major General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the major is in a conversation with Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) over the possibility over what actions they could do to change France’s fortunes in this war as well as relieve the ever growing scrutiny and criticism from the French media.
Broulard surmises a plan to attack the ‘Anthill’ an important part of land currently under the control of the German army. Mireau argues that the attack is practically a suicide mission but his mind changes pretty quickly after the prospect of a promotion is brought up. Next Mireau meets up with Colonel Dax (Kurt Douglas) to discuss the prospect of attacking the Anthill, Dax is of course hesitant about the mission but he is basically told there is nothing to debate.
The night before the attack we are introduced to Corporal Phillippe Paris (Ralph Meeker), Infantry Pierre Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), Private Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey) and Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), all of these characters play a big part in the film’s narrative. We learn that Corporal Paris and Lieutenant Roget despise each other which comes into play later on in the film.
I love the vulnerability displayed by these characters, they are clearly scared by the likely prospect of them being killed but they will be executed by their own army if they back out. Arnaud discusses with a fellow soldier of what type of weapon would the most painful to be murdered by, they talk about grenades, bayonets and rifles but never decide on a answer. The characters feel like relatable human beings which makes you buy into their struggles.
The night before attacking the Anthill Roget and Paris are sent out together on a scouting mission with one other soldier to check for any German’s who could infiltrate their trench. The drunken Roget leads Paris and the other soldier through no mans land, everything seems to going fine until Roget is startled by what he thinks is a German hiding in the trenches.
Roget sends the other soldier out to investigate as he stays back with Paris, the soldier never returns which makes the lieutenant nervous. He decides to lob a grenade in the direction the soldier headed towards but nothing really happens. Roget and Paris walk over the scene to find their own soldier lying on the ground dead, we find out later on that he was killed Roget’s grenade and this of course leads to some friction between Roget and Paris. The two of them argue over the situation extensively with Paris threatening to report the incident. This leads to Roget falsifying his report to Colonel Dax to cover his tracks.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Georg Krause including plenty of expert camera movements and tracking shots that are meticulously executed. Kubrick was the definition of a perfectionist and this is evident in the cinematography, flawless set design and expect direction of his actors. The fact a large portion of the cast include American actors playing French soldiers doesn’t really stand out or effect the films quality.
The next morning Colonel Dax leads the first wave of soldiers on the attack of the Anthill, the scene is shot in a wide tracking shot following the soldiers as some are killed and others struggle to deal with the uneven terrain. This scene is one of the well known and iconic from Paths Of Glory and I can understand why, I marvel at the sheer ambition of Kubrick and to pull it off as well as he did is impressive for a largely inexperienced film director.
Mireau overlooks the attack from the safety of a bunker hidden far away from the battlefield, he is horrified that the second wave of French soldiers have failed to exit the trenches. Dax is also aware of this and he makes the long journey back to see what is going on, he tries to encourage the group of soldiers to charge forward but his efforts are in vain. Dax tries to climb back over the trenches but he is overpowered by a dead corpse that falls right on him.
The attack is a complete and utter failure which outrages Mireau so much to the point where he demands a court marshal to have 100 soldiers executed for cowardice. The prospect of executing a hundred soldiers is decided to be a bit to much for Broulard so they decide to compromise on 3 soldiers with one chosen from each regiment.
Corporal Paris is chosen by Roget, Private Arnaud is picked randomly and Private Ferol is selected down to his unpleasant personality. Dax steps up to defend the three soldiers at the court marshal which takes place later on, what follows is a another masterfully executed scene that is incredibly shot and features a strong performance from Kurt Douglas which displays the full extent of his acting talent. Dax is clearly fighting a losing battle and he slowly begins to realise it.
“Gentlemen of this court, to find these men guilty would be a crime to haunt each of you till the day you die” concludes Dax after the 3 soldiers are found guilty. Colonel pleads with Broulard and he even provides evidence that could get Mireau and Roget into big trouble, Broulard takes the information on board and dismisses the Colonel. Despite all of Dax’s effort the executions still take place.
As a viewer you naturally side with Colonel Dax and the 3 soldiers who are being punished due to the poor decision making and failure of other things that are out of their control. What I love though is that you can understand the prospect of Broulard and the French Army, yes the way skew the trial to work in their favour is obviously wrong but they also need to display to the French public that real action is being taken to defeat the Germans and to end the conflict on the winning side.
Paths of Glory isn’t a exactly uplifting film, the hero doesn’t win in the end and the conclusion hints at the inevitable death and carnage that will clearly follow after the film concludes.
In the grand scheme of things this a very minor story taking place during a massive conflict, the war doesn’t end when the film does instead the horror and fighting rumbles on. The ending of Paths of Glory is a beautiful scene that is filled with emotion and features a wonderful singing performance from Susanne Christiane who Kubrick would later marry.
The film is a masterpiece and was the first great film directed by Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory features top notch acting from Kurt Douglas and the entire cast, incredibly precise direction and impressive attention to detail from Kubrick and the film leaves a massive impact on you despite it’s very short length.
Despite being released over 60 years ago Paths of Glory stills hold up to this day and that highlights what a massive achievement the film is, this is one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest films and I think that says a lot about how good Paths Of Glory really is.