Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
How revered is Stanley Kubrick? He made a mere 13 full-length features in his lifetime, and a whopping 10 of them appear on The List. Some of those (say Lolita, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut) could be dumped without much fuss, and his third film, The Killing, should probably be added. I’ve seen most of Kubrick. In fact, one of the only ones I hadn’t still seen was Paths of Glory, a film that I’ve heard nothing but good things about. Thus, with expectations high, I started watching.
I have a hypothesis concerning war films. There are a lot of great World War II films, a number of great Vietnam War films, but very few great World War I films. When it comes to WWI films, the bulk of the good ones come from places other than the United States. There are two reasons for this, I think. The first is that unlike most of the wars in which the U.S. participated, we were in World War I for a relatively short period. While the countries of Europe raged against each other, the U.S. sat back watching until the very end. The second reason is the way form the war took. It may not have been the least mobile war in history, but it certainly ranks. Front lines changed almost not at all for years.
Paths of Glory starts in France with General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) paying a visit to General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Mireau is charged with having his men take a German position called “the Ant Hill.” It is a fearsome position, and the casualties of an already shell-shocked group of men. The support will be thin and there will be almost no preliminary artillery barrage to help soften the position. The man charged with the assault is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a soldier once known as the premier criminal lawyer in France before the war. Knowing that he will likely lose as many as 60% of his troops, he nonetheless prepares them for the deadly climb over the top and against the enemy fortifications. While General Mireau claims to have the best interests of his men at heart, a successful taking of the Ant Hill will earn him another star.
The attack is an unmitigated disaster, destroying the men and inflicting terrible casualties. When the men don’t leave the trenches and press the attack fast enough, Mireau orders the artillery to fire on the position of his own troops to force them up and over. Needing scapegoats to cover their painfully bad decision, the generals in charge of the operation decide that the fault for the failure should fall not on themselves but on the troops themselves. Mireau initially wishes to court-martial 10 men from each company, but is eventually convinced to try three, one from each company in the First Battalion.
And, as should be expected here, the trial is a sham. Dax is barely able to question his own charges, virtually every line of questioning is shut down. It is a trial merely for show and to protect the reputations and careers of the generals in question. Each of the three men are chosen for this kangaroo court by different methods. Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because his commanding officer (Wayne Morris) not only dislikes him, but because Paris knows of his commander’s real cowardice in the face of the enemy. Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is selected because his commander believes him to be socially undesirable. Finally, the twice-decorated Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lot from the surviving men of his battalion.
Paths of Glory is a model of cinematic efficiency. The characters are established, the attack happens, and both the legal guilt and innocence and the actual guilt and innocence in under 90 minutes. In his later years, Kubrick wasn’t known for this sort of brevity. Of his films that followed this one, only Dr. Strangelove is less than 100 minutes and of the rest, only Full Metal Jacket is under two hours. I like this quick and effective Kubrick.
So let’s get to the meat of it here. Everything I have heard in the past about Paths of Glory is right. This film is incredible in all respects. In its efficiency, it manages to tell a gripping story without letting up and without a place for the viewer to stop and catch his or her breath. It exposes the hypocrisy of the command and commanders in a way that few films do or can. Kubrick seemed to enjoy sticking it to the military—he certainly didn’t pull punches with Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket--but nowhere more effectively than here. Here, there is no black comedy. There’s only hypocrisy.
I admit to being a Kubrick fan. Even his films that fall short of brilliant are still worth watching, and there’s a reason that more than 75% of his feature-length output is considered must-see. Of all his films, Paths of Glory ranks in the top tier. This is as effective as Kubrick gets and as edgy as he gets. There may be more important films in his filmography, and there may be some that are as good, but there are none better.
Even those who don’t normally watch or enjoy war films will find something here. Much like The Ox-Bow Incident is a morality play that happens to be a Western, Paths of Glory is a morality play and a judgment that merely takes place in military clothing. And holy shit is it ever worth watching.
Why to watch Paths of Glory: It’s Kubrick!
Why not to watch: Learn this now: the best war movies make you angry.