Kirk Douglas was so impressed with Stanley Kubrick’s previous outing The Killing that he agreed to work with the director on his next project Paths of Glory which is often regarded as Kubrick’s first masterpiece and rightfully so as Paths of Glory is certainly a staggering film. The film tells the story of three French soldiers who are under trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is assigned to protect them in a court martial. The penalty for cowardice in the face of the enemy is death, yet the mission they were sent on, under orders by General Mireau (George Macready), is suicidal. At first Mireau wants to execute 100 men from each regiment but is eventually persuaded to reduce this down to ten and then eventually one. This single person will be selected by the regiment’s captain in a manner he sees fit.
Similarly to Lewis Milestone’s 1930 Best Picture winner All Quite on the Western Front (which would later influence Full Metal Jacket with its inhumane military drill sergeant) Kubrick’s Paths of Glory depicts the brutal life of trench warfare during the First World War. The assault across No Man’s Land to take the defensive position held by the Germans, dubbed Anthill, is astounding. The men charge across the landscape avoiding exploding shells crashing around them in all directions, fellow soldiers are falling down killed barely a few steps ahead, behind or beside them, it’s horrific to watch let alone fight. No men reach the German trench, the firing was to intense thus a retreat was the only option other than death, however this retreat is viewed as cowardice by the generals so the men had two options run or retreat but they both had the same result. Essentially this was the story of the Battle of the Somme and the most of the fighting on the Western Front; it was a defensive battle in which technology had developed faster than tactics.
Many critics have claimed that Kubrick is emotionally distant with a lot of his characters, while this may be the case with some of his later films, it certainly isn’t the case with Paths of Glory which is undoubtedly one of the most authentically moving war movies ever made, however it could be argued that Paths of Glory is a courtroom drama rather than a war film, but it contained war sequences beyond any other in its time (in fact they were the most brutal depictions of World War One since All Quiet on the Western Front). Kubrick is in great touch with his characters showing his anger at the sheer loss of life experienced during a time of war, Kubrick makes it clear who are the criminals and who are the innocent men. The unfair nature in which the trial is conducted is infuriating; the court never takes account of the men on trial past actions sentencing them to death just because a general (of high ranking) is pressing the charges against these men which is an issue Kubrick highlights as throughout the film a superior officer uses his position of power to his advantage.
There are plenty of overwhelming scenes in the film - the charge across No Man’s Land, the execution sequence in which the convicted men take the long walk towards the pole which looms menacingly ahead and the breathtaking final sequence in which a German, singing a German folk song, moves the French soldiers to tears. The 65 second shot tracking shot through the trenches is lined by men on either side just like the execution sequence, both of these walks leads to death. This scene has been emulated in a number of war movies, most recently employed by Steven Spielberg in War Horse. This highlights the influence the film has had over the past half century and beyond maintaining its status as one of the most powerful anti war films ever made. As a war film Paths of Glory is above or on a par with the likes of All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon and, in some cases, Saving Private Ryan (for its depiction of the Omaha beach lands than anything else).
Hanging on the whitewashed walls (similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange) of the grand, beautifully designed stately buildings, in which those who dictate the battle reside, are giant paintings of the French aristocracy before the French Revolution of 1789. This was a time in which a person’s position on the social ladder meant everything, the paintings hanging in the rooms of those killers in high places illuminates the fact that social position also meant a great deal in the army. A soldier in a lowly position could not and would not win in a court of law against another in a higher and more powerful position. Kubrick not only attacks the wasteful loss of life of those who should be with their wives and children but also the oxymoron that is military justice. Justice was dictated by the men who had fought in wars that were not quite as unforgiving and merciless as the First World War.
Featuring a superb central performance from Kirk Douglas (who would work with Kubrick on his next project Spartacus) Paths of Glory is a masterpiece of the genre and the first masterpiece of Kubrick's career. The film is deeply moving as Paths of Glory is an angry, passionate project from Kubrick who engages with human emotion, misery and also looks at the very thing that makes us human: compassion. The fighting on The Western Front was one of trench warfare which is fought using defensive tactics, essentially for four years it was a stalemate, and Kubrick feels there is no defence for which the human race can use to justify the massacre that occurs during a time of war.