Paths of Glory (1957)
June 8, 2016 6:50 PM - Subscribe

After refusing to attack an enemy position, a general accuses the soldiers of cowardice and their commanding officer must defend them.

Roger Ebert: The film, made in 1957, is typical of Kubrick's earlier work in being short (84 minutes), tight, told with an economy approaching terseness. Later his films would expand in length and epic scope, sometimes to their advantage, sometimes not. It does however contain examples of one of his favorite visual strategies, the extended camera movement that unfolds to reveal details of a set or location, and continues long after we expect it to be over.

Telegraph: Paths of Glory remains lesser known than bigger Kubrick films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. Yet it has aged well, and looks sumptuous in black and white, despite a modest budget of less than $1 million. Unhappily, the film barely broke even. Kubrick did not take a salary and Douglas – who agreed to take the lead role, thus encouraging United Artists to distribute it – lost money on it.

The film is adapted from the 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, an American who enlisted in the Canadian Army and fought in the First World War as a teenager. It’s fair to say that Kubrick’s film improves on its source material. Paths of Glory proves he was already a master film-maker by his mid-twenties. There are several remarkable sequences, notably a long reverse tracking shot in which Douglas strides along the narrow French trenches before the doomed attack; while most soldiers cower and huddle against the enemy bombardment, Dax walks upright, looking straight ahead, resolute and fearless.

Wall Street Journal: The film's title, like the novel's, comes from a well-known line by the English poet Thomas Gray: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." And partly because of that, an antiwar label more suited to the book has attached itself to the movie. The film is indeed pointed, but its contempt is directed not at war per se—as was the case in Lewis Milestone's still-magnificent "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930)—but rather at the manner in which war is conducted. For the movie is fundamentally an attack on bureaucracy and its attendant rigidity, hypocrisy and cumulative ineffectiveness.

If that sounds dull or, worse, didactic, rest assured that in the hands of Mr. Kubrick and company it is no such thing. The picture is visually alluring from the start. Much of the early action takes place in the trenches, evoked with unsettling accuracy by the film's art director, Ludwig Reiber, and fully revealed in two audacious tracking shots by its cinematographer, George Krause. And not enough can be said about the lucidity and taut excitement of the movie's one battle scene, the failed attack that initiates the disgraceful acts from which this picture draws its dark power.

But the film's most unnerving moments play out in the sumptuous chateau that serves as headquarters for Gen. Paul Mireau, the movie's principal villain, modeled on a similar character named Assolant in the book. Here, far from the muck of the trenches, the film's most disturbing images unfold, as high-ranking officers calmly plot the basest turpitude.

NYTimes: To a certain extent, this forthright picture has the impact of hard reality, mainly because its frank avowal of agonizing, uncompensated injustice is pursued to the bitter, tragic end. The inevitability of a fatal foul-up is presented right at the start, when an ambitious general agrees to throw one of his regiments into an attack that he knows has little chance to succeed. And it looms with ever mounting horror as he orders an example to be made of three men picked at random from the thwarted attackers and dogs them unmercifully to their doom.

All this is shown with shattering candor in this film, which was shot in Germany and was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who also helped to write the screenplay with Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham. The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick's sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die.

Mr. Kubrick has made it look terrific. The execution scene is one of the most craftily directed and emotionally lacerating that we have ever seen.

NYMag: Paths of Glory is all about that greatest of all movie subjects: power. Menjou’s General Broulard and his even more arrogant cohort, General Mireau (the sneering George Macready), occupy impossibly ornate palaces as command headquarters—to them, soldiers are like the grains of salt they spill on silk tablecloths. They think the anguish expressed by Douglas’s Colonel Dax isn’t genuine, that he seeks a promotion (i.e., more power) rather than a reversal of their absurdly maleficent execution order. (They are, of course, wrong: Douglas’s famous clenched jaw, expressing enraged frustration, was never put to better use.) The condemned men—played by Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey (the merciless murderer in Kubrick’s previous thriller, The Killing), and Ralph Meeker (who’d already been Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly)—are entirely powerless, pawns with varying degrees of dignity.

Kubrick is quoted in Norman Kagan’s 1972 book The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick as saying that war is “one of the few remaining situations where men . . . speak up for what they believe to be their principles.” Recent war films ranging from Three Kings to the documentary Gunner Palace—as well as Kubrick’s own final work in the war genre, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket—suggest just the opposite: that men and women are systematically stripped of their principles by their government and are sent off to die without much in the way of moral, motivating inspiration.

In Paths of Glory, General Broulard proclaims his patriotic motives to bray, “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” He was talking about reviving the bloodlust ardor of his warriors. Viewing Paths of Glory in this century, you may be jarred you into thinking about how little the “stimulation” of waging war has changed. We and our leaders, like Broulard, rarely glimpse the thousands of troops who die serving their country. Yet while the distancing effect of long-range modern weaponry may cut down on the hand-to-hand combat World War I soldiers are shown engaging in here, there are still plenty of close-up, bloody confrontations endured by soldiers on the ground (shock and awe now seems a rather distant memory).

But, in other ways, Kubrick’s comment shows how different our moral battlefields look from Verdun or the Somme—present-day wars afford only those at the highest levels of command to “speak up for what they believe to be their principles.” The rest of the participants are now far more like Kirk Douglas’s Dax, compelled to attempt and doomed to fail at idealized dream scenarios of victory.

The Cinema behind Star Wars: Learn how Stanley Kubrick's 1957 war classic inspired a fan-favorite episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

posted by MoonOrb (4 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I love this whole film but jesus that ending just rips me apart every time.
posted by octothorpe at 10:15 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The two films that Kubrick made with Douglas (the other was Spartacus) are his most satisfying because they allowed him to exercise his general distaste for humanity while giving the audience a central character who is both interesting and unambiguously sympathetic. Both films are deserved classics.
posted by ubiquity at 11:03 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Great post MoonOrb, thank you. Paths Of Glory is the first of Kubrick's perfect films. There's not a shot wasted. Kirk Douglas is brilliant. The tracking shot across the battlefield is just stunning, and has been copied dozens of times. This is an absolute must-see.
posted by vibrotronica at 2:16 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm becoming more and more convinced that this is his most perfectly realized film. Not necessarily my favorite, but absolutely perfect.
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:39 PM on June 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

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