Paths of Glory
Classifying Paths of Glory as an anti-war film is the result of lazy thinking. Shot in simple black-and-white in 1957, this is the film that put director Stanley Kubrick on the map, and there’s a very good reason why. While loosely based on a true story referred to as the “Corporals of Souain” during World War I in France, the film’s criticism of officers in the military was considered offensive and it was not allowed to be shown in France until 1975.
But Paths of Glory is interested in a hell of lot more than telling us that war is bad. Instead, it is a sophisticated look at both moral boundaries and the nature of man.
The picture is bleak, stark, cold, and in your face from the moment the military drums start pounding during the opening credits. It is 1916, two years into World War I. The film begins with two self-important French generals sitting in a rich, luxurious mansion, discussing (or conspiring over) their next planned attack.
When General Mireau (George Macready) is asked to order an impossible attack on an impregnable German position called the “ant hill,” any pretensions to conscience are disposed of by a promised promotion. The next scene shows Mireau uncomfortably strutting through the muddy trenches, awkwardly trying to communicate with and encourage his men—but having the opposite effect.
Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is different in that he actually lives with and fights alongside his men. When given orders to carry out the impossible attack, he can only follow them reluctantly or be replaced. Kubrick slowly and painfully pans the camera throughout the attack as it fails, moving through a seemingly infinite amount of mud, explosions, bullets, bodies and barbed wire. A dreadfully large part of the regiment is slaughtered before they can get even close.
All this is just the beginning of the film.
Paths of Glory is really the story of when the furious General Mireau orders the court martial for cowardice of three of his surviving men (arbitrarily selected) to make them be examples for the rest of the regiment’s failure. General Mireau’s tantrums are petty and childish, but they are costing the lives of his men.
Kirk Douglas’s character, knowing his men are innocent, is determined to defend and save them from the firing squad. Of the three men chosen to serve as “examples," one is a Christian, one an agnostic, and one an atheist. Each of the three has a separate response to the priest who arrives to comfort them. All three are helpless and defenseless in this situation. Ferol (Timothy Carey) is selected as “socially undesirable.” Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because he was a witness to his superior officer’s cowardice. Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is selected simply by casting lots. All three are unjustly accused of cowardice.
Kirk Douglas plays the hero of the film in what is probably one of the best performances of his career. His entire presence on the screen seems to be one of suppressed and contained anger. His character focuses the viewer on an important theme. C.S. Lewis began his talks on Mere Christianity by suggesting that everyone knows right and wrong, but that no one measures up to what he knows to be right all the time. Lewis also admitted that it is possible to eventually insulate your conscience against morality completely.
Douglas’s Colonel Dax is the film’s lone voice crying out for justice. He strongly believes in a clear, black and white, moral law that the other officers simply choose to ignore and keep explaining away. This is an important difference between them. And ultimately, the success of his efforts to save his men finally turns upon whether he can convince his superior officer that this difference even exists.
Recognizing our own depravity is the very first of all steps to redemption. There are multiple characters in this story who refuse to recognize their own depravity. Towards the end, one character even asks Colonel Dax, “Wherein have I done wrong?” proving that he still hasn't learned this simple lesson.
That question is then immediately followed by the last and most perfect scene in the film, which, for the first time, finally and actively illustrates the principle of recognizing your own fallenness. This lesson is learned by a group of characters in the tears and trembling of a captured, terrified German girl.
Who would think hard enough to set up a contrast like that at the end? Only a great director making his first great film.