Cinema Styles: Paths of Glory takes road less traveled | News

Note: This review is part of our legacy series. Paths of Glory celebrates its 65th anniversary this year.

Based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel, Paths of Glory is Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film about World War I. It stars an explosive Kirk Douglas as a French colonel battling against the entire military industrial complex. When his soldiers are accused of cowardice for refusing to carry out an impossible mission, Douglas’ Colonel Dax uses his prior experience as a lawyer to defend them from being executed.

Paths of Glory is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. It paints the picture of the military as dehumanizing and absurd. When the soldiers refuse to carry out a mission that will guarantee their death, three men are randomly selected to be executed. A life-affirming decision is responding with a death-affirming one.

This film’s dark atmosphere is part of what makes it a masterpiece, along with its interrogation of ethical principles. Several scenes have a palpable level of intensity, particularly those set in the war trenches and the courtroom. Both locations serve to determine the life and death of its characters, only the latter is more methodical. While the battlefield indiscriminately takes its victims, the head officials in the military use of the courtroom to carefully select its consequence.

The separation between the soldiers and the people who make decisions about their lives is one Kubrick focuses on throughout the movie. The story highlights the class differences between the people on the front lines and those in the distant safety of their offices. These men in power decide the fates of men they’ll never meet. The soldiers are just as much threatened by their own superiors as they are by the enemy trying to kill them.

The title comes from a quote from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It says, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” This is in reference to the ambitious General who serves to benefit from initiating the unachievable raid. He knowingly sends the soldiers to their guaranteed death, all with the hope of raising his state. The path he laid before himself is one riddled with the corpses of the men he has sacrificed for his personal gain.

This might be Kirk Douglas’ greatest performance. He’s explosive as Colonel Dax, as he expertly shows the futility of battling against an entire system. Wayne Morris, Timothy Carey, and Joseph Turkel are equally incredible and tragic as the three randomly soldiers chosen to be executed. Their humanity shines through in their performances, and serve as a stark contrast to the cold and distant commanders. Each man also shows the different ways one can deal with their impending death, and their reactions range from stoic acceptance to desperate begging.

Paths of Glory feels connected to Stanley Kubrick’s other movies. While this one was his first anti-war film, he would go on to direct two more classics of the genre: Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. The fluid camera movements in the trench scenes also seem to hint at the groundbreaking steadicam work he would later use in The Shining. While that movie uses the moving camera to reflect the isolation and madness slowly growing in the Overlook Hotel, here it’s used to show the weariness and humanity on the fatigued faces of the soldiers as they stare straight into the lens.

The final scene is easily the film’s best one. After all the unfair atrocities that occur in Paths of Glory, it shows the soldiers relaxing at a bar. They’re watching a show, and a young, captured German girl is brought out to sing. She looks scared and uncomfortable, and the French soldiers hoot and holler as she quietly sings her song. Gradually, the heckling ceases, and the men stare in wonder and awe at the young woman as she continues singing with tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. They suddenly understand her pain, and recognize the loss of innocence that’s inherent in wartime for everyone involved. They may not understand what she’s saying, but they see how she feels, and they feel the same way. The scene ends with everyone in the bar humming along to the girl’s song, tears now streaming down their own cheeks. This beautiful and unexpected scene shows the tragically unifying horrors of war.

Paths of Glory is a biting indictment of the machinations of war. As in society, war is full of inequities. People at the top decide the fate of the people at the bottom. At one point in the film, the General says “the men died wonderfully.” When one’s life journey leads to them benefitting from the deaths of others, it’s time to embark on a new path; one that doesn’t result in an ethical and literal dead end.

Bobby Styles studied Film at UCLA, and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial, and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches the intermediate and advanced video production courses in the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday.


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