Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s WWI Anti-War Masterpiece

Paths of Glory was forbidden in the UK and in Switzerland until the 70s. French troops disturbed the opening in West Berlin. The movie was forbidden in American cinemas for soldiers. It was forbidden in France during the war in Algeria. It was shown in Paris for the first time in 1975. What’s that telling us? That this is a radical anti-war statement that openly criticizes high command. It is powerful and thought-provoking and absolutely unambiguous as to its goal. I felt a bit uneasy that Kubrick chose to criticize French command. Didn’t he have plenty of opportunities to criticize American command? Be it as it may, Paths of Glory, which is based on a true account, is a great achievement.

The movie opens  with the Marseillaise and a voice telling the horrors of  WWI, the numbers of soldiers that get killed daily to no avail. The incident on which the movie centers took place in 1916 in France. The movie moves back and forth between the trenches and the high command residing in an elegant Château.

An ambitious general asks of the equally ambitious general Mireau to take a hill, held by German troops, the so-called “Ant Hill”. A highly symbolical name if there ever was one as people are treated no better than ants and wiped out with one simple gesture. When general Mireau informs colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the order to attack the ant-hill, he is met with incredulity. Dax tells him that it is impossible and will cost an incredible amount of lives. The answer is a sarcastic calculation. 65% of the men will not survive and the outcome is not even sure. Dax wants to refuse the order but is threatened to be replaced.

The futility of the attack becomes obvious right away. Dax fights in the front line with his men who die one after the other. He and many others retreat after seeing that they can’t make it. Many stayed in the trenches, knowing damn well they would be killed and nothing could be won. Seeing the men’s reluctance to run into certain death, general Mireau orders to open fire on them but the officer who receives the order refuses.

The frustrated general then orders a court-martial. Three men are chosen in lieu of all the others and accused of cowardice. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, takes up their defence. Like the court-martial in Breaker Morant, this is a pure sham.

Kubrick’s movie has a lot of interesting elements. Colonel Dax is one of the great war movie characters. A officer of high moral standards, free of carrerism and ambition, a just and human being. Kirk Douglas was very well-chosen for this role. He is very believable and gives a great performance.

The contrasts between the high command who is far from the action and thinks they can mock simple soldiers who are afraid, slap those who show signs of shell-shock and judge others that refuse to run into certain death, is fantastic. Paths of Glory is one of those movies that has scenes that will stay with you forever because they are emotionally true and powerful. The utter cynicism of the high command, the way they calculate losses without giving further thought to the fact that each number equals a human being, will make you cringe.

It is a movie that belongs to two sub-categories. The court-martial movies like Breaker Morant and the “Taking a hill movies” like Hamburger Hill, Pork Chop Hill, Gallipoli and The Thin Red Line.

Apparently there is a more recent French TV film Le Pantalon (1996) that quotes Paths of Glory in its major parts.

As much good as I may have said, I had my reservations. I did not understand the use of black and white. The movie doesn’t work so well from a cinematographic point of view. There are not so many contrasts and shadows as there normally are in black and white movies. Even Pork Chop Hill (far less good as a whole) looks much better. Kubrick is famous for the use of colours in his movies… I don’t see it as entirely logical that he didn’t shoot this in color. But that is the only flaw I could find. It still deserves a solid 4.5/5.

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21 thoughts on “Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s WWI Anti-War Masterpiece

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Great review. I would like to address your questioning of why the French army was chosen as though it was unfair to France. The French army was by far the most logical of the combatants for this tale. The incompetence of the French high command and their insensitive slaughter of an entire generation of young men deserves to be condemned. Only the French army saw an actual mutiny by large parts of the army who refused to make any more suicidal attacks. This movie would absolutely not work with American characters. The American army may have had similar tactical doctrines, but it was fresh and enthusiastic (read: naive) and the soldiers and officers went into battle without qualms. No Americans would have refused to launch an attack on an “Ant Hill”. You can eliminate the Germans because they did not question commands and were primarily on the defensive at this stage of the war. The British were all volunteers so less likely to rebell. Hell, if they did not mutiny after the Somme…

    Your likening it to “Breaker Morant” is very appropriate. The sympathetic accused, the brilliant lawyer, the Machaivellian high command, the rigged trial, the punishment, etc.

    I agree about Douglas doing fantastic work (he was a driving force behind the making of the movie). But let me also give props to one of the greatest villains in war movie history. George Macready as Gen. Mireau is amazingly loathsome. All the actors are great, as a matter of fact.

    BTW it is #2 on Military History’s list.

    • The English slaughtered their people as well…Maybe that’s what annoyed me to choose the French command as being particularly bad but as you state the emphasis is rather on no one else being willing to be subordinate which is a very French trait until today… The movie was done in 57, later it wouldn’t have been acceptable for an American film director, I think. Thanks for your comments.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        I agree that the British high command was similar to the French in their “bash your head against a wall” tactics. I just feel that if you had to choose one side to bash for this mentality, it is more appropriate to choose the French. I agree that if made today, this movie would have to be made by Europeans, but I wonder (given the past censorship) if even today the French want to see the truth. Isn’t it easier to simply remember that you won the war and not delve into the details?

      • The movie was forbidden in the UK and Switzerland of all countries as well! I think your last comment is guided by anti-French feelings. It is our country that was ripped open, and invaded not the country of the British… And France did not start the war.

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    I am enjoying this discussion. I have no animosity towards the French, I am speaking only from a military history point of view. I feel the movie is commenting on the hubris and incompetence of WWI generals and unfortunately, the French military best fit that theme. The British were equally bad, but there was no mutiny by its soldiers and an incident similar to what is depicted in the movie was much more unlikely than in the French army. It is true that France was a victim of German aggression and suffered heavily for it, but that does not excuse the French leadership for making things worse through poor strategy and tactics (and lack of concern for casualties). It is a testament to the French soldiers that they finally had the nerve to say enough is enough.
    As far as the last comment, the same can be said for virtually any country that wins a war, but does some questionable things in it.

    • I see your point and you are right. French high command has done a lot of harm to its soldiers in many wars… (Maybe less in WWII but we all know why… It’s shameful and great luck at the same time. I wouldn’t want to know what my beloved Paris would have become if the Germns hadn’t invaded it. Btw, did you know that Germany had planned, should they win the war to flatten Paris… When i saw a documentary about this recently… i couldn’t believe it… ). What I truly can’t understand why the movie was forbidden in Switzerland?

  3. warmoviebuff says:

    I do not know about leveling Paris after the war (which war?), I find that hard to believe, but I do know that Hitler ordered the destruction of the city as the Allies approached in 1944 and thankfully the general in command disobeyed those orders. This was the subject of the book and movie “Is Paris Burning?” which I need to rewatch after decades.

    Sad to say, the French high command was still making terrible decisions all the way to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954. How stupid is it to put an army in a fort located in a valley where the enemy controls the high ground? I can not weigh in on the Algerian war, but I would hazard that they made some bad decisions in that one, too.

    The French people have not been well-served by their military leadership going back to the Franco-Prussian War. They have had many more Gamelins than Napoleons. They have deserved much better.

    I, too, am puzzled by Switzerland’s censorship of the movie and cannot think of a logical theory. Other than the Swiss ban all war movies.

    • Yes, after WWII. Hitler gave the order and there were plans already how the city would look. It is not so widely known.
      Algeria was the worst mistake, from what I hear. You know they won the war from a military point of view and then gave in and let Algeria go? I’m not saying they shouldn’t have gotten their independence, far from it, but why not save all those lives? It look as if they first wanted to show superiority and then give in. And what came out of it… Go to the suburbs in Paris and you will know. Young ploicemen appointed to those areas regularly commit suicide. For once football did a great job. You cannot estimate how good it was that Zidane was such a star… Off the Paths of Glory topic….

  4. Novroz says:

    Great review with interesting comments. I really enjoy reading your review and your discussion 🙂

    I don’t know much about wars in Europe, so I can’t join the discussion.

    I should try watching more Kubrick’s films to gain a bit trust on him.

  5. […] Paths of Glory (1957). Kubricks’ classic look at the short comings of French high command and the horror of trench warfare. Review […]

  6. nem baj says:

    Second Lieutenant Jean-Julien Chapelant, executed by a firing squad in October 1914, whose fate largely inspired Humphrey Cobb’s book and Stanley Kubrick’s film (like ‘Arnaud’, he was shot tied to a stretcher), has finally been rehabilitated by the French Republic on November 11th, 2012.

    He is now considered ‘Mort pour la France”.

    • That’s so ironic. (Mort pour la France, I mean). Thanks for the info.

      • nem baj says:

        Sure, but ‘friendly fire’ may be an improvement over dishonor…

        By the way, Paths of Glory had a relatively low budget, which in 1957 meant black and white. Besides, all Kubrick feature films are B&W until 2001… except for Spartacus, which isn’t a notable example of the use of color.

        Georg Krause’s photography for Paths of Glory, between noirish and realistic, isn’t so bad – but it is rather low-key and not as impressive as, let’s say, Oswald Morris’ work on Lolita. Perhaps that’s what had you yearning for color. On the other hand, the composition of the shots is typical Kubrick, particularly the wide-angle scenes.

        I guess Krause (who made his early career shooting nazi propaganda) was chosen because the film was shot in Germany…

      • I’m a fan of Kubrick’s later work I must say, Full Metal Jacket and even – out of context – Eyes Wide Shut. I wasn’t aware it was low budget but now that you say it, it seesm logical. It’s one of those I’d like to re-watch.

      • nem baj says:

        People often think it was a big budget because of Kirk Douglas starring, but actually Douglas was also producing it with his indie company (Bryna). It was the company’s sixth film and before that, four out of five had lost money…

        Eyes Wide Shut isn’t that out of context: it has a theme in common with Paths of Glory (and Barry Lyndon), which is that of any organized society’s aptitude at crushing an individual’s basic needs.

        The carefully choreographed wide-angle shots I was referring to above can be interpreted as a bird’s eye view of the mechanics at work… I’m particularly fond of the closing scene – notwithstanding the fact that the director eventually married the singer – which I always find incredibly moving.

      • Now you made me want to re-watch it right away. I can’t remember that final scene.
        Looking at it like that, there are similarities between all of Kubrick’s movies.
        Yes, I thought it would have been expensive to get Douglas. I think it is one of his best roles.

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