Paths of Glory

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I would rank it as second only to Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is serving in the French Army during World War I. His commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) orders him to lead his regiment in a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified hill. When Dax shows reluctance to do this, Mireau questions his patriotism. An incensed Dax tells Mireau that he will lead the attack. The next day, Dax leads his men into battle, but an intense artillery barrage forces them back into the trenches. Refusing to admit that the attack was a bad idea, Mireau claims that it failed because the soldiers were cowards. He orders that one soldier be picked from each battalion to be tried for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life, announces that he will defend the men in court. The trial turns out to be rigged, however, and despite Dax’s best efforts, the men are condemned to death.

This film is filled with powerful images. There is, for example, a long tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches just before the attack. The soldiers are lined up along the walls, and shells are exploding outside the trenches. We can see from the expression on his face that Dax has convinced himself that he can somehow make this insane plan work through sheer willpower. The scene is a striking depiction of the self-willed bravado that make war possible.

Paths of Glory is about bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. It makes the point that the military system actually rewards cynicism and ambition rather than courage and honor. (One can see this in the Army’s treatment of Bradley Manning.) In a scene between Dax and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the latter assumes that Dax has opposed Mireau because he wants the latter’s position. When Dax tells him that he was actually trying to defend his men, Broulard reacts with a mixture of surprise and comtempt.

Paths of Glory is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb that was inspired by an actual incident in the First World War. This film wasn’t shown in France for many, apparently because members of the French military objected to its portrayal of French army officers. (I guess these guys were a little touchy after their less than stellar performance during World War II.)

A great film.

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