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