It was 1957’s “Paths of Glory” that first placed Stanley Kubrick among cinema’s prominent directors. It was his first true commercial success and critics praised it for its bold and unflinching anti-war message. But not everyone loved it. In a very crafty way the film would be banned in France until 1975 due to its depiction of the French military and government. In some ways you could say that is a testament to the power of its message.
The film is based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobbs. MGM heads were impressed with Kubrick’s previous film “The Killing”so they hired him to write and direct a film which would later become “Paths of Glory”. But the project was almost derailed by MGM’s reluctance to finance another war picture. That changed when new heads were brought in and Kubrick was able to entice Kurt Douglas to star in the film. He and his production buddy James B. Harris were then given the green light.
The story is tight and straightforward. It’s about a French military unit led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who are given an impossible mission. General Mireau (George Macready) is offered a nice promotion by his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) in exchange for taking a German fortification known as the Anthill. That would require Mireau’s men led by Colonel Dax to sustain substantial casualties.
There is a great early scene where Mireau weighs the loss of so many soldiers against the glory of a new promotion. In a cold and callous conversation he and Broulard estimate as many as 55 percent of Dax’s men would lose their lives. For Mireau it’s a worthy risk especially when the personal gain is so significant. He agrees to the mission knowing the costs but also aware of the probability of failure.
I won’t give too much away, but suffice it to say the mission goes poorly and a livid General Mireau takes action to protect his reputation and his promotion. Colonel Dax who has fought for his men on the battlefield now finds himself fighting for them in a kangaroo court of French military officers hungry to make examples. In many ways this battle is more appalling and vicious than the one on the battlefields. In one scene a general causally reasons “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”
There are several different ways this movie could have went but Kubrick deserve credit for not caving in to a more conventional approach. I think I have been wired by many contemporary filmmakers to expect the routine and the predictable. Here Kubrick stays true to the film’s intent by not wimping out and abandoning the story’s sharp and pointed commentary. To have done differently would have dulled the edge and made this a much lesser picture.
The film also excels thanks to Kubrick’s visual choices particularly his decision to shoot in black and white. It is perfect considering the harshness of the material and the morally murky waters we navigate through. There are also a number of scenes that stand out due to Kubrick’s cameras. The well known battle sequence was shot with six cameras placed around a huge war-torn battlefield. It offers up one of the most intensely arresting war scenes you’ll see.
The ending is a bit of a strange shift that may at first catch you off guard. It features a young German woman singing a song to Dax’s men in a small club (the woman is Christiane Harlan who later married Kubrick). Within this scene is a subtle shift in mood that works perfectly as a conclusion to this story. It’s a satisfying fit with Kubrick’s fluid and economic storytelling and it ends this powerful film with a poignant prick of the heart.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
One of my all time favourite war films. An astonishingly powerful film.
Really, really good. Can’t believe I waited so long to see it. I ended up buying the Criterion Collection bluray. It is a fantastic edition.
It’s so easy to think war films have to be visual blood thunder corpses and casualties, but the most shocking scenes come here from the dialogue. “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones ” – I mean wow.
Exactly! As with the line I mention in the review – “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.” It is said with the coldest emotional indifference.
The most unnerving moments come from the tongue instead of a gun.
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I’m glad you got a chance to see this and enjoyed it. It reveals an aspect of war we don’t often see in cinema. It’s my second favorite film of Kubrick’s and when I first saw it I said to myself “Damn, if 2001 wasn’t my favorite already, this would be it!”
Really enjoyed it! This may be blasphemy to die hard Kubrick fans but I like this film better than 2001. I do like 2001 but don’t really hold it in as high regard as most. But this film got its grip on me and never let go. There is something about early Kubrick that I find myself strongly drawn to.
Even as a massive Kubrick fan, I still have yet to see this one. Thanks to your review, I’ll do my best to seek it out and give it a watch.
Brett you REALLY need to see this one. I’m not a huge Kubrick guy but this is yet another early film of his that has impressed me. The boldness of his vision is amazing and he never shortchanges that vision. Soooo impressive.
For me, this is one of the best films about war ever as I also love what Kubrick does with the tracking shots and the presentation of the battle scenes. Yet, it’s those moments in the meeting that are really gripping as it goes to show that men who are running things are the real cowards as they don’t fully consider what is at risk and what they could’ve done to avoid casualties. All for some bullshit promotion.
Another thing about the film that I love is a video from Criterion where Guillermo del Toro was picking up some DVD/Blu-Rays and the look in his face when Criterion told him they didn’t have the film yet says it all. I was like “Ay no!”
The Criterion Collection is fabulous. I had to buy it. Agree with your points on the film. The most piercing trick is how Kubrick blows you away with the intensity of the battle scene but then dwarfs it next to the shock of what goes on in those hearings and afterwards. And I love that Kubrick sticks to his guns throughout the movie. So many films will try to crowd please at the end, but not this one.
Kubrick was never a crowd-pleaser and didn’t need to be. He was better than that. I hold him in high regard while I also loved the fact that he had oddball tastes like The Jerk and White Men Can’t Jump.
I’ve always been a bit mixed on him. I find that I REALLY love his early work but some of his later stuff didn’t exactly blow me away on the same level as it did others.
Nice review Keith. Paths of Glory is one of my all-time favorite films and it epitomizes Kubrick’s brilliance; the battle sequences are some of the best scenes Kubrick directed. I’m curious, why didn’t you give this higher than 4 stars?
I did think there were a couple of minor lulls and as a whole it didn’t quite leave that overwhelming awe that my very favorites do. But I don’t want to shortchange it. It is a movie that could be 4 stars one day and 4.5 the next. There is that much I like about it.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory” manage to get boxed in my head as those great films of war with a powerful way of showing how ludicrous war is. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is better AQOWF, and Oliver Stone’s later Vietnam anti-war films are melodramatic and in-your-face loud films. You said it regarding Kubrick. His film is cold, unemotional and haunting. Great post, Keith.
Thanks Cindy. And as I mentioned to someone else, I love how Kubrick sticks to his guns. He doesn’t crowdplease which would have completely ruined the film. It’s an impressive movie on so many levels.
Simply one of the most important war movies of all time. Great post, glad you caught up with it.
Strong, strong movie. Had to buy it for my collection. Really anxious to see it again. The Criterion Collection has some great extras.
Great review, this is a blind spot for me so thanks for your reminder.
Thanks Vinnie. Its a good one. A very unique war picture which is one of the main thins I appreciated about it.
I’m adding it to my list Keith.
Excellent. I’m not saying but it before you see it, but the Criterion Collection edition is superb.
I’ll seek out that edition.
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