In the face of war, men are often forced to make difficult decisions, none more difficult than those that involve the lives of others. Being responsible for one’s own actions is one thing, but to be responsible for the actions and the lives of others is on a different scale.
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV) While watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film PATHS OF GLORY, the aforementioned proverb came to mind. Which is fitting as the title of the story it was based on came from a poem with similar theme by Thomas Gray, titled “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Set in France, during World War I, PATHS OF GLORY shows us both the ugliness of trench warfare, and the even more detestable face of those that create the orders behind it. General Paul Mireau (George Macready), tempted with commendations, is convinced to have his soldiers head into a suicide mission to take out a German held location known as “The Anthill.” With almost no movement either way, and without promise of assistance, Mireau is coaxed into it by his commanding General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) after he is promised a promotion for successfully completing the insurmountable task.
Mireau visits with the men on the front line, handing down his directions to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a man well respected by his troops, who isn’t afraid of leading at the front, despite coming from a life of being a lawyer when he was a civilian. Dax realizes the dangers of his orders, but rather than being transferred away for insubordination, he opts to stay to lead his men into battle, no matter the odds. He feels that if his men are going to be thrown into harm’s way, he will be there leading the way.
The battle goes as feared, with many men killed, one division not even able to get out of the trenches due to mass casualties. Mireau is infuriated that the group isn’t moving upon his orders and orders his artillery to fire upon them. The artillery commander refuses without written orders, as any sane man should. Mireau doesn’t stand for the loss in the battle, and feels that men should be sentenced to death for their cowardice. Without having specific examples, the three division leaders are set to selecting one man a piece for court martial, Colonel Dax acting as their defense attorney.
What follows is the proceedings of the court martial, and how the men react to their sentencing. As a Kubrick film, it was well written throughout the entirety, but it allowed Douglas to really shine in the court martial scene. He showed amazing range of emotion as he went from outrage, to confident swagger, to defeat, in a short time. His character was truly fighting for the lives of the men on trial, and Douglas became that character, not just acting it out.
Kubrick’s anti-war stance was well documented, and he used this film, as well as DR. STRANGELOVE and FULL METAL JACKET, to both satirize war and show its ugly side. The officers discussion about the front-line soldiers, comparing them to dumb cattle that group up whenever explosions occur, show what his thoughts of the higher-ups were. The men that made the decisions to have soldiers through their bodies to the meat grinder, did so without fear of having to join them. Instead, they enjoyed themselves, in palatial estates that were commandeered, throwing balls, while the soldiers hunkered down in the trenches fearing a lucky mortar shot. There was also an early scene involving denial of shell shock, instead just blaming it on cowardice.
Whereas the last film that I reviewed was a French film set in Los Angeles, PATHS OF GLORY was an English film set in France. The prior had barely any English spoken, whereas the latter only had French spoken as the characters’ names. I found this an odd choice, despite other films earlier than it, including foreign language in them.
While he made more powerful statements in both DR. STRANGELOVE and FULL METAL JACKET, I believe he only did so due to more experience. PATHS OF GLORY was a strong effort from a young director, and he used his relationship with Douglas again three years later with SPARTACUS.