Today’s cinema adventure: Paths of Glory, the 1957 World War I drama by Stanley Kubrick, an early example of the filmmaker’s much-lauded mastery of the cinematic medium starring Kirk Douglas as a French colonel who finds himself caught in the middle when the personal and political motivations of his superiors force him to order his men on an impossible mission. Based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb that was itself inspired by a true-life incident, it was a project spearheaded by Kubrick- who had read the book as a youth- when the critical success of his low-budget film, The Killing, got him hired to develop projects for MGM production head Dore Schary. Though Schary rejected Paths of Glory for its lack of commercial appeal, he was eventually fired from the studio, freeing Kubrick and his producer, James Harris, to shop it elsewhere, and they managed to salvage their film by gaining the interest of actor Douglas, whose enthusiasm and guaranteed participation allowed them to find backing at United Artists. With its harsh anti-war sentiments, its cynical take on military politics, and its bleak ending, nobody anticipated it would be a box office hit; it did, however, fare better than expected, despite heavy controversy in the European market- it was withheld from release in France for several years due to diplomatic protests, and it was heavily edited in other countries. More importantly, in the long term, it earned massive critical acclaim for its director, thrusting him further along on his own “path of glory” towards his future status as one of the all-time great auteurs in the history of cinema.
Paths of Glory is set at the French western front in 1916, where the soldiers endure the hellish conditions of trench warfare while their executive superiors reside in the luxurious nearby palace that has been temporarily transformed into military headquarters. It is in the comfort of the latter location that General Mireau, who oversees a division near the key German position known as “the Anthill,” is visited by his superior, General Broulard, a member of the French General Staff. Broulard has come to propose an attempt by Mireau’s men to take the heavily fortified German stronghold, a mission which, if successful, could win favorable response for the French war effort in the press and the political arena- and presumably advance the careers of the military commanders involved. At first, Mireau is adamant in his refusal of the commission, citing the impossibility of the task and the devastating casualties that would be inflicted on his soldiers; when Broulard brings up the possibility of an upcoming promotion, however, which might be adversely affected by his choice, the ambitious subordinate quickly changes his mind, and agrees to order his troops to make the attack. Mireau makes a visit to the trenches, a hellish war zone under a continuous blanket of shelling and gunfire, where he takes the time to exchange a few military platitudes with the already demoralized men- and deliver a strict dressing down to one shell-shocked soldier whom he accuses of being a coward- before delivering his orders to the division’s commander, Colonel Dax. Dax, a dedicated soldier and a capable leader, is likewise skeptical of their chances for success, deeming the attack a suicide mission, but when the general threatens to relieve him of his command, he reluctantly agrees to lead his men in the attempt- though he knows the cost in human life will be high. The next morning, the assault on “the Anthill” commences, with Dax personally leading the men through a horrific barrage of shells and machine gun fire; the effort proves futile, with most of the first wave killed or wounded without gaining much ground towards the goal, and the second wave refusing to join the attack. A desperate Mireau, watching the battle from behind the lines, attempts to order his artillery commander to fire on the reluctant men; the officer refuses to comply without written orders, further enraging the general. Meanwhile, despite Dax’s attempts to rally the men, the onslaught of German resistance proves too much and the surviving troops fall back, putting an end to the mission. Mireau is furious, accusing his men of cowardice and mutiny; he demands punishment for the failure of the mission, and orders that each of the three company commanders choose a man to be court-martialed and executed for treason, as an example to the rest. Colonel Dax is appalled, and volunteers to defend the three soldiers in the proceedings against them; a skilled lawyer in civilian life, he is frustrated in his efforts by the court’s disregard for the men’s legal rights and its refusal to hear any mitigating evidence on their behalf. Despite Dax’s vehement objections and impassioned pleas, the men are found guilty and sentenced to die by firing squad. Dax makes a last ditch effort to save the doomed soldiers, bringing evidence to General Broulard about Mireau’s thwarted attempt to fire on his own army; nevertheless, the execution proceeds as scheduled, and afterwards, when he orders an investigation into Mireau’s actions, Broulard offers Dax the disgraced general’s command, believing that he has been angling for the job all along. The disgusted Dax refuses the promotion, admonishing the wily Broulard for his manipulative role in the whole tragic affair. Leaving the headquarters, he overhears the soldiers singing along with a young German girl in a pub, and resolves to let them enjoy their brief respite for a short while longer before ordering them, as he must, back to the nightmare of the trenches.
The film’s taut and eloquent screenplay was credited to Kubrick and Calder Willingham, along with noted “pulp” fiction author Jim Thompson; in reality, most of the script was written by the latter two men, though the director took equal credit for his supervisory contributions- a sign of his frequently- noted desire for complete control of his films. Needless to say, perhaps, the stridently anti-establishment sentiment of the story, combined with its indictment of power and patriotism as a mask for self-promotion and exploitation, generated much controversy in the political environment of the mid-1950s Eisenhower era; despite its setting within the French military, Paths of Glory was decried as un-American and doubtless seen as an example of Communist influence in the Hollywood film industry by the remaining proponents of McCarthyism. Indeed, actor Douglas was vilified in the press during the production of the film for his involvement in such a project, though he remained unwavering in his dedication to it. He was not alone in his confidence, either. Though Kubrick himself had planned, for box office purposes, to compromise the story by changing its ending to a happy one, he was persuaded to keep to the novel’s original, bitter conclusion; when the studio balked at the depressing finale of the script and demanded the proposed happy ending instead, producer Harris resubmitted the original version without changes under the somewhat cynical assumption that nobody would bother to re-read it. He was right, and after the film’s completion the studio execs were so impressed with the final product that they agreed to release it without alteration. The relative lack of significant opposition for Paths of Glory might have been a sign of the times- after all, another film with a strong anti-war message, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, was one of the year’s big hits, even winning multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture- and despite its relatively humble box office showing, it certainly made an impact on viewers, paving the way for a coming decade in which movies would take critical attitudes towards the accepted establishment to a new level.
Whether or not Paths of Glory captured the public, it quickly became a darling of the reviewers. Praise for the film was almost universal, with critics expressing particular admiration for its unvarnished portrayal of the realities of warfare and its stark black-and-white cinematography. Decades later, it is easy to look at Kubrick’s work here and recognize his familiar style, developed to mastery even at this early stage in his career. The lauded cinematography (executed by George Krause) bears the hallmark of the director’s fondness for natural lighting, capturing the harsh glare of the uncovered bulbs in the trenches, the cold and hazy sunlight of the battlefield, and the heavy diffusion of the enormous palace interior with a palpable aura of tangibility; the relentless but deliberate mobility of the camera, including the classic and influential reverse tracking shot of Colonel Dax moving through the trenches on the morning of the fateful attack, prefigures future use of the same techniques in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, to name but two notable examples; the thematic motif of a story in which human endeavor is destined to fail because of inherent flaws in the character of its participants, and the shrewdly observational approach to revealing these flaws through the cool detachment of the empirical camera, is classic Kubrick, a thread which weaves its way through every film in the director’s canon; the unmistakable framing and shot composition, the triangulated relationships, the photographer’s fascination with capturing the human face in its myriad expressions of emotion- all these things and more are present in Paths of Glory, bearing witness to the concrete vision this then-youthful genius had already created for himself. Already established, as well, was his penchant for demanding absolute control and his sometimes excruciating perfectionism. His insistence on getting every frame of the movie exactly as he wished resulted in numerous confrontations and difficulties on the set, including a notorious incident in which, after 17 takes of a scene with Adolphe Menjou, the veteran actor exploded with rage and frustration at the director and ferociously derided the younger man’s inexperience at working with performers, in front of the full cast and crew of the film; after patiently allowing Menjou to expend his fury, Kubrick quietly called for another take. It was but a foreshadowing of the kind of troublesome relations with collaborators for which he would be known throughout his career, but his exacting methods resulted, undeniably, in a legacy of masterpieces that continue to influence and inspire filmmakers- and dazzle audiences- to this day.
Though Kubrick deservedly takes the lion’s share of credit for the excellence of Paths of Glory, note must be taken of the fine contributions of the others involved. To begin with, as noted, the screenplay is a well-crafted, tight piece of cinematic storytelling, peeling away expectation and cliché to reveal the unscrupulous, the cowardly, the vindictive, and the opportunistic qualities of its characters in an unrelenting portrait of war and its tendency to bring out the worst of human behavior. Justice and compassion are thrown aside in favor of maintaining the status quo, ostensibly deep loyalties and ethics are forsaken at the first hint of personal consequence, and humanity is disregarded in the face of the ego-driven politics of the established social order. The disparity between classes and ranks allows the free reign of corruption at all levels, and any trace of nobility or true honor is presumed to be just another pose adopted for the sake of gaining leverage in the quest for personal advancement. Kubrick’s level of involvement in the writing of the screenplay is uncertain to me, but the majority of actual text was composed by Willingham and Thomas, both of whom would work with the director again despite his having downplayed their contributions here; these men have since justly earned proper recognition for this and many other projects, and each of them left the clear imprint of their particular style on Paths of Glory, helping to define its distinctive flavor of gritty humanism and undeniably playing an immeasurable part in making it the instant classic it became.
The cast, too, deserves a nod of appreciation, and not just for enduring their director’s tyrannical methods or the grueling conditions of the film shoot. Kirk Douglas, who was then a top star, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, helped Kubrick on his road to greatness with his support for this project (he would later be instrumental in getting the filmmaker hired to replace Anthony Mann as the director of Spartacus, a movie which would further cement his reputation and his status as a power player in the industry, and though the two would ultimately fall out during the making of this latter epic, Douglas has remained staunch in his admiration for Kubrick’s abilities as an artist). The actor may have suffered some backlash for his involvement, but it was well worth it in terms of his long-term reputation; his performance as Colonel Dax is widely considered one of his finest pieces of work, a passionate, intelligent, and utterly convincing portrait of a decent man in the midst of madness, and he not only gives us a hero with whom we can place our sympathies, he serves as a much-needed reminder that even in a nest of vipers, men of quality can still exist. As for Adolphe Menjou, outbursts on the set notwithstanding, he gives the performance of his long career as General Broulard, hiding his ruthless Machiavellian machinations behind the smiling pleasantries of good manners in a way that makes it clear how much he enjoys being the master of the game; he is the film’s true villain, untouchable in his power and utterly without scruples, the picture of self-serving bureaucracy and elitist entitlement. George Macready is equally loathsome as Mireau, another species of political opportunist, whose greedy ambition makes him an easy target for the manipulations of men like Broulard, and whose thirst for power- probably stoked by decades of forced subservience- allows him to rationalize the most appalling decisions in pursuit of his personal glory, but also makes him prone to grievous errors in judgment which will ultimately prove to be his downfall; Macready, sporting a facial scar as a constant reminder that he has undoubtedly earned his position (and that he is, in fact, a product of the military system in which he has likely spent his entire adult life), is every inch the blustery martinet, but there is something about the desperation of his manner that makes us almost- but not quite- feel sorry for him. Also memorable is Wayne Morris, as a drunken lieutenant who abuses his position to eliminate a subordinate that threatens his security (and his conscience); as the three condemned men, Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey offer compelling examples of differing attitudes in the face of death, each of them representing aspects of humanity that defy easy judgment; Richard Anderson (later a familiar face of ‘70s television as Oscar Goldman, the handler of both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) is quietly superb as Mireau’s assistant, an officiously sycophantic administrator who relishes his opportunity to shine as the prosecutor in the court-martial of the accused mutineers, but who gives us, in his final scenes, more than a hint that the moral implications of his actions may be a heavier burden to bear than he had anticipated; and Susanne Christian (who would soon after become Mrs. Stanley Kubrick, a role which she would fill for the rest of the director’s life) is lovely and heartbreaking as the German singer, presumably a prisoner in the French-occupied town surrounding the military headquarters, who captures the hearts and souls of her unruly audience as she is forced to entertain them in the pub during the film’s final scene.
Paths of Glory is one of those flawless pieces of filmmaking that reminds us of just how good the medium of cinema can be. It is- and has been from almost the moment of its release- a textbook example of great film technique, and its deeply compelling story makes it a riveting experience even for those with little interest in the technical side of the art form. Director Steven Spielberg is one of many who has claimed it as a favorite film, and its plotline and themes have been borrowed or provided inspiration for countless other works over the years, from an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to a song by Faith No More. Its status as a true masterpiece is so unquestionable that it tends, sometimes, to be forgotten in discussions of great filmmaking simply because it is such an obvious example. In truth, though Kubrick’s later, more high-profile works have often been the subject of disagreement and controversy among scholars and critics, this early gem is almost always regarded with reverence by even the director’s most vehement detractors. If you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for? It’s one of only a few films that I can confidently recommend, without qualification, to anyone; whether you are an avid movie buff or a casual entertainment seeker, you are bound to find yourself enthralled by this powerful little movie, and even those with a short attention span can rest assured that, at a fast-moving 88 minutes, it will have no trouble keeping their interest. It’s a timeless classic, as powerful and riveting today as it was over a half-century ago, proving the words uttered by its star, Kirk Douglas, barely a decade after its release, to have been absolutely prophetic: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.” You were right, Kirk. I know it, too.