October 8, 2019

Paths of Glory (1957)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready

What it's about. We are in France during World War I. Self-satisfied General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) dangles a promotion to vain General Mireau (George Macready) if the latter can dispatch his men to take the Ant Hill, a key German fort near the French front lines. The task is almost hopeless, and will at best result in heavy casualties.

Mireau visits the trenches, and commands Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead the charge. It fails miserably, and what remains of the French units retreat to the trenches. Dax is outraged, and demands that numerous soldiers be court-martialed (i.e. executed by a military firing squad). The wily Broulard talks Mireau to three soldiers, one from each unit, chosen by the unit commanders.

The three luckless soldiers are whiny Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey), resentful Pvt. Arnaud (Joe Turkel), and sullen Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker). They are sentenced to be shot at sunrise, despite a sustained effort by Dax to defend their lives at trial. Tending to them is a devoted Catholic priest (Emile Meyer).

How others will see it. Stanley Kubrick's first two features, Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss, created little stir. It was his third movie, The Killing (1956), that placed him on his own path of glory, toward the status of one of the greatest film directors of all time.

Some of Kubrick's movies made money, such as The Shining. Others were flops, such as Barry Lyndon. But they were mostly great, and exhibited greater variety than rival "goat" directors Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Akira Kurosawa.

Paths of Glory was Kubrick's follow-up to The Killing. It demonstrated that Kubrick was more interested in art than money. The crafty Douglas made 300K in salary, while Kubrick worked for a percentage of the profits and thus received nothing.

More than 60 years later, Paths of Glory is far better known than the box office successes of 1957, such as Search for Paradise and Island in the Sun. But it was overlooked by the Oscars and Golden Globes. It did receive prestigious nominations from BAFTA and the Writers Guild of America, along with a smattering of worldwide festival recognition.

The film was blacklisted for years by several European nations. France, in particular, was unamused by the depiction of the French generals as self-serving poppycocks, and the French soldiers as fearful.

Today at imdb.com, Paths of Glory has 160K user votes, a big number for a depressing black and white 1957 drama. The user rating of 8.4 out of 10 is remarkably high. Male graders outnumber female graders by a ten to one ratio, and also grade the movie higher (8.4 versus 8.1). This is partly because there is only a single consequential female character, the German singer (Susanne Christian) at film's end, who soon thereafter became Mrs. Stanley Kubrick.

As one might expect, the user reviews rave about the genius of Kubrick, and the significance of Paths of Glory as an anti-war movie. Many hail it as the best movie about World War I. Nobody wonders why all the French soldiers speak English with an American accent.

How I felt about it. Paths of Glory is typically referred to as an anti-war movie. But what were the French supposed to do during World War I? Surrender to the Germans and allow them to rule their nation?

I instead see the film as an indictment of personal ambition and vanity. Broulard wants a military victory, however small, and doesn't care if a thousand soldiers die to accomplish it. At least he is open about what he wants.

Mireau, on the other hand, waxes eloquently about the sanctity of the lives of the men under his command. But Broulard knows that is merely a speech, and Mireau will take the bait of a promotion. In fact, Broulard wants the victory, i.e. promotion, so much that he orders the trench gunner to fire on his own men to compel them to advance further, though by that time the assault was obviously a failure.

Mireau knows that headquarters might blame him for the slaughter. He raises charges of cowardice to redirect that blame. Meanwhile, his right hand man, Saint-Auban, cynically serves Mireau as the means to advance his own military career.

But Mireau is the obvious villain of the movie, while Dax is the hero. It is a wonder he doesn't die leading his troop during the assault, and a further wonder he isn't stripped of command, if not court-martialed, following his insubordination to first Mireau, then Broulard.

But it is a movie, and the silver screen demands conflict. Certainly, trench battles and the life and death politics of war provide an ideal setting for generating that conflict.

But cowardice is blatantly displayed by one soldier, Lt. Roget. To save his skin, and return to the relative safety of the trench, he throws a grenade at his own man, the one he ordered to risk his life in his stead. Later, he selects the disgruntled witness, Cpl. Paris, for the firing squad, again to save his skin. It was also his unit that failed to ever leave the trench.

Ironically, Roget's efforts work, at the expense of any self pride that might remain. It can even be argued that his refusal to lead his men into battle prevented what would surely have been the needless loss of their lives.

The three men selected for the court martial and execution, even Paris, do not meet their deaths with much bravery. Pvt. Ferol, in particular, wallows in self pity. The point is that the victims of injustice are not heroes. They are only victims, and the only hero is our A-list lead, Kirk Douglas.

Paths of Glory also contrasts the privations and suffering of the men in the trenches with the luxuries and dissipation of the top officers from headquarters. The latter are shown living in castles, eating lavish feasts, and dancing with beautiful (and much younger) women at parties. Unlike the generals, Dax disdains such conduct, but then again, he is only a colonel. Who wants no part of joining the brass through advancement. Because he is a film character.