Paths of Glory
PATHS OF GLORY
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production: Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporatoin. A Bryna Productions presentation, for United Artists; black and white; running time: 87 minutes; length: 7,783 feet. Released November 1957.
Producer: James B. Harris; screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb; photography: George Krause; editor: Eva Kroll; sound: Martin Muller; art director: Ludwig Reiber; music: Gerald Fried; military adviser: Baron Von Waldenfels.
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax); Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Paris); Adolphe Menjou (General Broulard); George Macready (General Mireau); Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget); Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban); Joseph Turkel (Private Arnaud); Timothy Carey (Private Ferol); Peter Capell (Colonel Judge); Susanne Christian (German Girl); Bert Freed (Sgt. Boulanger); Emile Meyer (Priest); John Stein (Captain Rosseau); Harold Benedict (Captain Nichols).
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Humphrey Cobb's poorly written but powerful novel of the French army in World War I was published in 1935. Some people in Hollywood wanted to film it then but to change its setting to pre-Revolutionary Russia so as not to offend any existing government. In 1957, after Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson wrote the screenplay, nobody wanted to touch it until Kirk Douglas got behind the project. (Douglas claims that Kubrick then rewrote the story—including a happy ending with a last-minute reprieve for the condemned soldiers—in a wrong-headed effort to make it more commercial, but that he made Kubrick go back to the original script.) When it was released, the movie was not a commercial success—and it did offend the French government, which banned it for 20 years.
Paths of Glory is Kubrick's best motion picture. It lacks the discursiveness that characterizes all of his later work; true to its source, the movie is practically Aristotelian in its unity of action, time, and place. It has none of the lethargic pacing that mars parts of Lolita, much of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and all of Barry Lyndon; unlike those films, Paths has a constant, driving rhythm: usually the camera or the characters are always in motion, sometimes simultaneously, as in cinematographer George Krause's celebrated tracking shots: officers move through the trenches; the army makes its abortive attack on the Anthill (delicately renamed from the Pimple of the novel); the three court-martialed soldiers are led to their deaths by the firing squad; and, all the while, the camera travels with them, inexorably leading the characters and the viewer down these "paths of glory," to the grave.
And Paths of Glory is happily free from Kubrick's unfortunate tendency toward misogyny. That's partly because (discounting the extras at General Broulard's soirée) there are no women in the movie—except for the one "enemy" captive, the only German whom we see. This young woman, coerced into singing for the rowdy troops, is the catalyst for the film's poignant ending. After all the callous disregard for human life up to this point, we see the soldiers drop their mocking bravado one by one to hum along with her. (She is played by Susanne Christian, Kubrick's third wife.)
Paths of Glory is always hailed as a great anti-war film, and— visually—it does make a statement about the horrors of war, showing the broken and wounded in the trenches (almost off-handedly, as background) and the wholesale, senseless slaughter on the battlefield. But, even more than that, it is an anti-military film (and, by extension, an indictment of all hierarchical systems which sacrifice human beings for expediency). From the opening credits, over which "La Marseillaise" is martially played, ending on a discordant note, the film expands upon the novel's themes, developing and driving home the point of the army as a corporation and its officers as ruthless businessmen, using subordinates for personal gain.
General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) of the French high command approaches ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) with an impossible task—to take a highly fortified German position within 36 hours—dangling a promotion in front of him as incentive. (Menjou played many suave villains in his career, but casting him as the manipulative Broulard is doubly appropriate, since, in his private life, he was a notorious reactionary and one of the "friendly witnesses" when HUAC investigated Hollywood.)
Talking himself into the success of the operation, Mireau then dumps its accomplishment on Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) and his battle-weary troops. (The role of Dax is fleshed out and conflated with that of Captain Etienne in the novel in order to give the film a hero, a moral center with which the audience can identify.)
Mireau even goes so far as (unsuccessfully) to command his artillery to fire on those troops when the battle doesn't go so well. He's prevented by an ordnance officer who insists on having the order in writing—illustrating the First Rule of corporate life: "cover your ass." When the attack fails, Mireau wants to cover his ass, so looks for a scapegoat and trumps up charges of cowardice against a trio of randomly selected soldiers. Dax argues their cases eloquently at the maddening kangaroo court martial which follows, to no avail.
The novel concludes with the soldier's executions; the film goes beyond that episode, bringing the corruption around full circle: instigator Broulard is the agent of Mireau's comeuppance, giving the viewer some slight satisfaction (because the condemned men have already been killed). The ever-cynical Broulard misinterprets Dax's motives in exposing Mireau, thinking Dax has done it to gain Mireau's job (which Broulard is only too happy to give him). Dax bluntly disabuses Broulard, giving the viewer intense but fleeting satisfaction: Broulard has Dax and his men transferred back to the front. The system works—for those in charge of the system.