Safe in their picturesque chateau behind the front lines, the French general staff passes down a direct order to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas): take the Ant Hill at any cost. A blatant suicide mission, the attack is doomed to... more » failure. Covering up their fatal blunder, the generals order the arrest of three innocent soldiers, charging them with cowardice and mutiny. Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, rises to the men's defense but soon realizes that, unless he can prove that the generals were to blame,nothing less than a miracle will save his clients from the firing squad. A compelling masterpiece from world-class director/writer Stanley Kubrick and screenwriters Calder Willingham and JimThompson, Paths of Glory is a blistering indictment of military politics and "an unforgettable movie experience" (Newsweek).« less
Stanley Kubrick's film on the futility and madness of war
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 07/03/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In 1916 France Commander Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) wants General Mireau (George Macready) to have his battered division take the "Ant Hill", an impregnable German fortress, promising Mireau a promotion and another story if he succeeds. Mireau orders Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead the charge, which is a complete failure. When soldiers are pinned down by German artillery and machine gun fire Mireau orders his own artillery to fire on their own trenches, screaming, "If those sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll take French ones!"
"Paths of Glory" has a deserved reputation as a great anti-war film but I think that director Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's 1935 semi-fictional novel is a rather specific indictment of both a particular military and a particular war. The suicidal attack in the first act of the film was loosely based upon the battle for Fort Douamont during the Battle of Verdun, where over 300,000 French soldiers lost their lives. The assault, doomed to fail before it began, is ordered by French generals more concerned with prestige and promotions than the lives of their troops or the actual prospects for success. In the wake of the disaster three men are selected to be tried and then executed for cowardice. They are defended in court by their commander, Colonel Dax, the lone voice of reason speaking out against the insanity of what has happened.
This film was banned for almost twenty years in France and it is an indictment of the French military on a par with those films that have touched on the infamous Dreyfus case. I have trouble extending this indictment beyond these French generals, not only because in cinematic history there is this sense of this being standard practice for the French military but also because hypocritically sending troops to such senseless death is rare in American military history. John Bell Hood sending Confederate troops in a series of useless charges to teach them a lesson at the Battle of Franklin comes to mind, but I remember most American generals as taking blame and responsibility for such slaughters (e.g., Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee after Pickett's Charge, Ulysses S. Grant with regard to the final assault at Cold Harbor).
But there is also a sense in which we identify this sort of waste of young soldiers with World War I. In cinematic terms the obvious comparison is to "Gallipoli," where British troops are having tea on the beaches while Australian troops are gunned down in a needless charge ordered by stubborn British generals (another category of military leaders easy treat with disdain given how they are portrayed in the movies). The Civil War has provided amble evidence that troops charging entrenched or fortified positions was horribly futile and yet fifty years later European armies were still sending thousands of men against machine guns (the iconic weapon of the first World War). As the opening narration explains, "Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards - and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands."
The title of the book/film comes from a line in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," where the poet writes, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." This might be an anti-war film but it still shows the heroism of the troops as Kubrick uses a tracking shot to follow the Dax and his soldiers across No Man's Land against the German fort. After all, these men are fighting an army that has invaded their country, so there is a sense in which the title is inappropriate simply because these men are not involved in a quest for glory.
The film was shot in Germany and cinematographer Georg Krause provides one of the sharpest black & white films you have ever seen. The clarity is almost daunting and it is impossible not to think that it is not but another part of Kubrick's grand design. As for the performance by Douglas I would agree with the general consensus that this is his finest performance, even over what he would provide for Kubrick three years later in "Spartacus."
In the end Kubrick makes a final argument for the universality of human experience when a German singer (Susanne Christian, who was Christiane Kubrick wife of the director) is forced to sing a song for the French troops whose jeers turn to tears. There are, relatively speaking compared to other wars, relatively few films about the First World War. But it is rather impressive when you start listing the ones that immediately come to mind ("Wings," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Sgt. York," "Gallipoli") how good they tend to be and how many of them are, at their essence, anti-war films. For that, I think the credit for linking that particular war with the idea of the futility of war clearly belongs to Erich Maria Remarque, author of "All Quiet on the Western Front.""
Dr Tathata | Omphalos, USA | 05/25/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When you are the one who gets to decide who lives and who dies, what are the criteria that the rest of us should buy into before giving our consent? If a general, or a CEO for that matter, asks the impossible, how far must men go in following their orders before disobedience is permissible? When is it ok for a cog in the machine to stop being a machine and start being a human being? This film suggests that the Ant Hill could only have been taken by live soldiers, and if all the soldiers were being slaughtered in the attempt to cross no mans land, the few survivors should naturally turn back, and live to fight another day. Under these circumstances, taking the Hill would have been impossible.
Ah, but that was an embarrasment for the general who ordered the attack. His judgement could not have been wrong, so, therefore, the men must be cowards. The role of Reason, the nature of absurdity, courage, and cowardice are all examined in this simple story, and the implication is clear that it is better to die bravely in front of a firing squad than to grow comfortable with mendacity and cower before the truth. The real cowards in the story were those who ordered these men to their deaths on the battlefield, because they were afraid to say no and risk their reputations for daring, and also those who ordered their deaths in front of a firing squad, and also those who concealed the truth out of fear of the consequences. Again, it is better to die bravely than live in cowardice. And the bravest of them all was the colonel played by Kirk Douglas, who fought for reason, justice, truth, and against the enemy on every side, even when the enemy was his superior officer. Yes, the enemy can be found in your own ranks, even among your commanding officers.
In the end they are all ordered back to the front. However, the next to the last scene in the cafe, is one of the most astonishing moments in cinematic history.
The soldiers, young and old, are making sport of a pretty young German girl who is being put forward by the proprietor for their entertainment. She has no talent, save for a little 'natural talent' he says, gesturing along the length of her body. "She cannot dance, she cannot tell jokes, but she has a golden throat, she sings like a bird", he tells them. They are laughing and taunting her, and she is nervous and intimidated, and begins to sing, haltingly, but plaintively, and one by one, the men grow silent. The camera moves from face to face, young, old, battle weary, her voice reminds them of all that is delicate and sweet, all that is not brutal and meaningless and horrible. And they all can remember a time, long ago, when they were not fighting and killing and struggling to keep alive, and slowly, one by one, they begin wiping away the tears, then picking up her melody and gradually joining in. Kirk Douglas peers in through the window when the sargeant comes up with their orders to return to the front. "Give them a few more minutes," he says, and turns heel. It is a devastating moment. This is a film with a clear and powerful message. But it is not an anti-war movie. It is anti-mendacity, anti-authoritarian, and anti-injustice. The war setting is just a timless trope to carry the weight of these more significant issues."
A complex trip through the trenches of Kubrick's head
Lawrance M. Bernabo | 07/07/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Paths of Glory is a complicated film experience, that on first viewing appears to be an anti-war diatribe, but repeated viewings make it far more complex. The film's plot revolves around the brutality of trench warfare and the total disconnection between the suffering of the foot soldier and the French Army's High Command. The generals, fearing mutiny among their exhausted soldiers, order executions after the failure to take a position. The three martyrs are represented by their commanding officer, who also happens to be a lawyer (Kirk Douglas), but since they are sacrificial lambs, chosen by lot, their fate is preordained. It is the dance of death that Kubrick focuses on, in the trenches, in the elegant chateau that houses the senile General Command, and the courtroom where the farce is played out. This is not the first film focusing on the total stupidity of trench warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front(by Lewis Milestone) and The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks) are equally effective in portraying the madness of WWI. Paths of Glory is equally fascinating for revealing the concerns that Kubrick would focus on throughout the rest of his career. These concerns go way beyond plot and story. Kubrick worked with first rate writers on this film (Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham), but the vision is his own. The endless brutal moving camera as it snakes through the trenches, pulling the characters through the crazed landscape, the lateral tracking shots during the attack sequences, the brilliantly composed close ups of men under unending duress and pressure all help to create a universe that is beyond the control of man. Kubrick's vision is one of the strongest visual creations in modern cinema and should not be forgotten when we get caught up in the compelling storyline. His connection with Kirk Douglas was so successful that when the filming of Spartacus ran into directorial roadblocks, the star was able to convince the producers to bring in the unknown Kubrick to take on the Hollywood mega epic. The producers of Spartacus had never heard of Paths of Glory and it is only through video tape that we can get to see a crucial work from Kubrick's early career. It's also a great companion piece to Full Metal Jacket, another Kubrick war film released thirty years later and a film that continues to display the director's concern with creating a visual world of total entrapment that is outside the comprehension of the ordinary man."
Indictment of War...Affirmation of Humanity
Robert Morris | Dallas, Texas | 07/01/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It has been almost 50 years since this anti-war film appeared, one which was banned in France until 1970. It is based on Humphrey Cobb's novel. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas who also produced it, the film examines a fictional (but nonetheless wholly believable) situation during World War One when French troops are ordered to achieve an impossible military objective: Climb and secure the "Ant Hill," a heavily-fortified German position. Of course the troops are decimated. Whom to blame? General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) who gave the order? The troops' general, General Mireau (George MacReady), whose career ambitions overcame his doubts about the order? The officer (Colonel Dax) who led the attack? General Broulard gives a second order: Select three of the survivors, charge them with cowardice, give them a perfunctory military trial, and then execute them. Their commanding officer is Colonel Dax (Douglas) who had been an attorney in civilian life. He is ordered to be the defense counsel. After the inevitable verdict, the three representatives are executed by a firing squad.
Kubrick presents all this on film as if it were a documentary of actual events. Appropriately, he filmed it in black-and-white, in part to dramatize the obvious juxtapositions of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, etc. The battlefield carnage is extensive but not gratuitous. For me, the insensitivity, indeed inhumanity of the two generals -- far removed from combat in luxurious comfort -- is far more upsetting than the assault on the "Ant Hill." The men who followed orders and lost their lives or their limbs may have died in vain but at least died with honor, if not glory. Kubrick leaves absolutely no doubt about the generals who sent them into battle. Colonel Dax understands the need for military discipline. Orders must be followed. He eventually realizes that no matter how logical and eloquent his defense, the three men are doomed as were so many of their comrades were while climbing the "Ant Hill." Dax also realizes Broulard and Mireau will never be held accountable for the order nor for denying any responsibility for its tragic consequences. Dante reserved the worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. Kubrick ensures that Menju and MacReady portray Broulard and Mireau not as neutral accomplices but as agents of evil: a more dangerous adversary than the one their troops face in battle.
With regard to Dax, he did everything he could to save the three men. He leaves absolutely no doubt in the minds of Generals Broulard and Mireau what he thinks of them, both as officers and as human beings. However, they are his military superiors and the war continues after the executions. I mention all this by way of suggesting a context for my opinion that the final scene in the cafe has a very important purpose: to communicate Kubrick's reassurance to those who see his film that even amidst war's death and mutilation, the very best of human instincts somehow prevail. They cannot be defeated by the "Ant Hill," nor by Broulard and Mireau and their obscene abuse of military justice. In my opinion, that is what Dax realizes in the cafe as he and other soldiers listen to a terrified girl sing. And that is the final "message" which Kubrick seems determined to leave with his audience."
ONE OF THE BEST
Lawrance M. Bernabo | 07/21/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If Stanley Kubrick had not directed anything else, he'd still be lionized for this unrelenting look at the irony of war. Praise must also be bestowed on Kirk Douglas who had a big hand in getting this picture made. The trench scenes are realistic, the HQ drama is devastating and the 3 doomed soldiers are symbolic of the lost generation of WWI, picked at random and executed for cowardice to make up for lost honor and stupidity. The Humphrey Cobb novel sadly is out-of-print and how can this be? It is a classic on the level with Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet On The Western Front and Catch-22. I urge anyone who is interested in an intelligent war film (no oxymoron) to buy this for repeated viewings and to search out the book for a fuller appreciation of the artistic vision of Kubrick's masterpiece. The final scene where the German girl sings for the war-weary soldiers chokes me up everytime I see it. No other war film holds a candle to this one."