Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957) 
Dir. Stanley Kubrick 
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Meeker

Stanley Kubrick once said, "Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly....I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because that is the true image of him." The tension between this cynicism about mankind, its essential animalism, and our attempts to evade such a truth permeate much of Kubrick's work. Certainly this attitude informs his stunning 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory; rarely is mankind's foolish brutality so clearly at play.

 Set during a near impossible offensive by the French military during the First World War, it dedicates itself to the purgatorial idiocy and shocking arrogance of military middle-management. The officers here are self-satisfied, wealthy men belonging to a crumbling imperial age, of the sort who believe that all common soldiers are dispensable and that any slight unwillingness to die like a dog is an act of treasonous cowardice. Truly in the tradition of the "lions led by donkeys" approach to the Great War, Kubrick takes care to capture the officers' absurd near-grotesquerie, their handling with kid gloves of all issues, making such remarks as, "Your men died wonderfully," with utmost preciousness.

  The only man to seemingly see through this repellent charade is Colonel Dax, played with upright, righteous aplomb by Kirk Douglas. He has been asked to lead his men into a suicidal mission; when three of his men are court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy, he takes a stand and attempts to defend them any way he can, knowing they have been made examples of. Kubrick was already showing his capacity for staging actors compellingly against filmic space; several long tracking shots follow Douglas around the trenches, barely flinching as artillery explodes overhead; men huddle to his left and right,  clusters of bayonet-ends poised idly in the air. In another scene, we see the regimented ornament of soldiers and officers standing at attention; they form odd black pockets and quadrangles against the courtyard where they gather, an alienating portrait of the insect uniformity of the military.

 In a scene where a tearful young German woman is shoved onto a stage in front of an audience of raucous French soldiers, we may fear for the worst. Her terror, and their lechery, is palpable. Instead, she begins to sing - in the language of the enemy, nonetheless - and the soldiers' faces slowly slacken from their hardened poses into a collective, cathartic reverie. Kubrick has allowed a small sliver of redemption for the human spirit, after all; decent men and women are crushed by the injustice of indifferent politicking, but also the fundamental absurdity of the war machine.


Featured in

Featured in