Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
War began between Germany and France on August 3, 1914. Five weeks later, the German army had smashed its way to within 18 miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River, and in a series of unexpected counterattacks, drove the Germans back. The Front was stabilized and shortly afterward developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. By 1916, after two grisly years of trench warfare, the battle lines had changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards - and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands.
In 1916 France, at the height of the First World War, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) determines that his forces will take the Ant Hill, a heavily fortified German position with strategic importance. He instructs the divisional general, Paul Mireau (George Macready) to travel to the front to inform Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the commander of the exhausted, decimated 701st Infantry Regiment. By Mireau's optimistic estimate, "only" 60 percent of Dax's men will die in the attempt; Dax, who's seen enough trench warfare for any lifetime, knows better--the attack would have practically zero chance of success, and be suicide for nearly everyone involved--and argues heatedly with his superior, but orders are orders. The assault inevitably fails, and Mireau is incensed: seeing men retreating into the trenches or never leaving them in the first place, he demands that Dax select a hundred men to be tried for cowardice. When Dax protests, Mireau agrees to a compromise: three men will be chosen to appear before a general court-martial and be tried for cowardice in the face of the enemy, under penalty of death. Dax, a criminal lawyer in civilian life, vow to zealously represent the three scapegoats at trial, but he fears that the verdict may already be a foregone conclusion.
Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's first great film, is often hailed as an anti-war masterpiece, although it's hard to see how any honest film about World War I could be anything but anti-war. Between 1914 and 1918, the land war in northeastern France amounted to a prolonged stalemate between Allied and German trench lines along the 500-mile Western Front, with neither side moving the line by more than a few miles for more than three years. In between the trench lines was No Man's Land, into which soldiers on both sides poured in unsuccessful advance after unsuccessful advance, only to be mowed down by the thousands by machine gun fire and poison gas. The war saw the first large-scale use of what are still some of the most fundamental tools of warfare today, like air power, tanks, and automatic weaponry; yet it was fought before the Geneva Protocol, which outlawed chemical warfare, and the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, which regulated the treatment of POWs and civilians during wartime. The availability of modern weaponry without international agreements regulating their use meant that millions of young men would go to their deaths in the most horrific ways imaginable, as dramatized here and in such films as Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971).
Paths of Glory was the 28-year-old Kubrick's third feature, after the minor Killer's Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), and he hadn't yet developed the characteristic style with which he is associated. Still, it's possible to discern some very Kubrickian themes here, which the director would further develop later in his career in films like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). It's not hard to imagine that Kubrick's experiences directing Paths of Glory, a film about a futile assault and its unjust aftermath at the height of a strangely pointless war, might have significantly influenced the deeply pessimistic view of mankind he would develop and exhibit in his later films, which tend to portray an alienated species at the mercy of its baser instincts. I've seen Kirk Douglas in a lot of films, and with the possible exception of Seven Days in May, this might be my favorite of his performances. The DVD box cover captures Douglas as an embittered Colonel Dax, his deep-set eyes swimming with disillusionment and despair, witness to a proceeding that makes a mockery of everything he's been fighting for.
Points to ponder:
- Christiane Harlan, credited here as Suzanne Christian, plays the young German singer in the final scene of the film. She would go on to become Mrs. Stanley Kubrick.
- If I warn you in advance, maybe you'll be less distracted by the Brooklyn accents of the "French" defendants. As is always the case in war, the enlisted men were drawn from the ranks of the working class, and the defendants stand in contrast to their pampered, isolated superiors (e.g., Adolphe Menjou, who was familiar to older filmgoers at the time as a debonair, Continental-type leading man from the silent era).
- What other, connections, if any, do you see between this film and Kubrick's later works?