Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

Title: Paths of Glory
Release Date: December 25, 1957
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions

Paths of Glory is the earliest major motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Released just over a decade after World War II when Hollywood was still releasing heroic war movies, Paths of Glory is stunning in not only being anti-war but in depicting the military leadership as incompetent and cruelly cynical. Now this is set in World War I in the French Army, so there’s some distance from the American World War II movies, but all the actors are Americans with clearly American accents (except the Generals who affect something like a British accent).

Kirk Douglass portrays Colonel Dax, commanding officer of the 701st Infantry Regiment caught between the gloomy low morale of the troops who see no point in losing their lives to maybe gain a few meters of land, and the Generals who consider a 55% casualty rate acceptable.  When an attack on  German position called the Anthill fails, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) wants troops shot for cowardice, and eventually settles on having one man arbitrarily selected from each of the divisions to be executed as an example.  Dax acts as the defense attorney for the three men in the farcical court martial that ensues.

I don’t like all of Kubrick’s films I’ve seen, but I’m always impressed with the things that Kubrick does in his movies.  The film is crisp and clear for a movie from 60+ years.  He makes good use of excess space, setting the small trial in a colossal ballroom much like Jack Torrance would later be seen writing in an oversize hotel lobby.  And there are great tracking shots of Dax walking through the trenches and the condemned men walking to the firing squad.  The depiction of the battle is a startling scene of war that’s not only impressive for its time but impressive for any time.

If there’s one great flaw for this movie is that it lacks any subtlety.  The generals are basically mustache-twirling villains while the condemned men are woeful villains.  Only Colonel Dax is allowed to have any complexity as a character.  Oddly, the most humanist scene of the movie comes at the end and doesn’t appear to have much to do with the rest of the story. A German woman (Christiane Harlan, the future spouse of Kubrick) captured by the French is forced to perform to the soldiers in a tavern, and they jeer her at first, but then as the song becomes familiar, they start to sing along, many of them weeping.  It’s a heartbreaking moment of shared humanity in an inhumane setting

Rating: ***1/2

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