Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson (Novel: Humphrey Cobb)
Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joseph Turkel, Susanna Christian
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Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is filled with many masterpieces. They have run the gamut of genres and nearly every film he handles is pure brilliance. So, it will come as no surprise that I found Paths of Glory quintessential Kubrick.
This anti-war film stars Kirk Douglas as a French military Colonel ordered to take a strategic piece of land in a show of strength for his country. However, the ulterior motives for wanting this territory highlight the cowardice, bravery and villainy of man when pushed to the brink in war time. Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready) is approached by Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to take The Ant Hill, currently occupied by German forces during the early stages of World War I. When he assures the Gen. that his eventual promotion will not (but probably will) hinge on his success in pushing the front line farther out, he sets out to push his men into achieving what many of them feel will be the impossible and likely result in more than 50% casualties.
After the assault fails miserably, Mireau seeks punishment for the insubordination of the entire outfit but is given a conciliatory 3-man scapegoat team who will act as examples for the rest of the regiment. They are cited for cowardice in the face of the enemy and as the trial begins, it’s clear that there will be no reprieve and no defense adequate enough to save their lives. One chosen by lot, one chosen out of revenge and the other chosen because he’s a social misfit. None of them deserve to die, but this is the way the film highlights just how disgusting and brutal war can be and how the power hungry and vain can take what they want with little concern for the safety or well being of their men.
Unlike the superior anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front, Kubrick gives us a sympathetic character in a position of power to symbolize the audience’s struggle with recognizing the right and just course of action and being repulsed by the outcome. Douglas is the perfect vessel for this position. He conveys strength, compassion as well as the viewer’s unquestioning disbelief and frustration at the callousness on display. Every attempt, every thought, every action is taken in vain for the outcome will not be what we hope even if some minor amount of justice is served in the end.
Kubrick’s style was not fully developed in Paths of Glory, but if you’re familiar with his later work, you can pick out a few common elements, the selfishness of men, the corruption inherent in leadership, the mirthful song (in this case sung by Kubrick’s later wife Susanne Christian) giving voice to an antithetical emotional resolution. It’s a film that deserves its place among Kubrick’s great films and may well be one of his finest, simply because it did not feature the excess and pomp of some of his later work, even if that gloss would provide a satisfying backdrop to further depravity.
November 15, 2010