Paths of Glory

This Stanley Kubrick film (1957) is listed in AFI’s top 200 movies of all time. Paths of Glory tells the story of a company of World War I French soldiers accused of cowardice after the men refuse to advance during an attack on the German lines. Three soldiers chosen at random from the ranks are court martialed, tried, and shot, to provide a warning and example to the rest of the men.

In WWI, following an initial burst of enthusiasm and optimism on both sides, a static front of trenches developed, stretching unbroken from the Atlantic to Switzerland. Soldiers from Germany, France, and England populated these trenches from 1914 to 1918. Periodically, one side or the other would send forth a wave of men to be slaughtered while attempting a breakthrough. Casualty numbers ran higher, far higher, than had ever been seen before in human history (although the patterns of battle and loss reflected those of the US Civil War, with respect to death vs the development of new weaponry). The lines hardly moved over the entire course of the war.

The action in Paths of Glory occurs halfway through the war. It could have been set anywhere on the line, on either side of the line. Kubrick lays out the basics with a nighttime reconnaissance sequence, scenes of the general officers planning the next attack, a fruitless assault, the trial of the three men for cowardice, the executions.

I watched this movie again several weeks ago and asked myself, does it deserve its stellar reputation as an effective antiwar movie?

The question occurred to me because I was in a contrarian mode, having just written a review (q.v.) of 2001, explaining why I thought the movie was not as good as advertised. If Kubrick could win accolades with 2001, could it be that Paths of Glory was similarly defective? The generals behave badly. Death is a statistic. The war, it is clear, is symmetrical, meaning that right and wrong do not apply when weighing the reasons to fight. Some die and the rest move on. Meaningless. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the protagonist returns home from the lines for a visit and finds the old men in the tavern arguing over the war as if it were a soccer match. In Paths of Glory, we are not even provided the neocons’ cold-blooded, realpolitick, simple-minded explanations of the benefits of political change by force.

The moral, ethical, non-cynical man’s view is provided in the film by Kirk Douglas, who might as well be living on another planet for all the good he does here. Idealism can only be used as contrast by Kubrick here, can only be grand and shining but febrile in effect, if war is to remain absurd, mechanical, final.

A soldier is killed because of an officer’s criminal malfeasance; ironically, the officer is spared retribution by having a witness to the killing executed. A soldier is near death from a head injury incurred in a fight; ironically, he is saved so that he can be shot. A young German woman sings to the French troops and ironically brings them to tears. Kirk gives up at the end, with that Kirk look on his face, and ironically, I find myself grinning.

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