Paths of Glory (1957)
directed by Stanley Kubrick
starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker and Adolphe Menjou
We’re presented with the trenches of the french army in 1916, right in the middle of WWI. Through a military chain of command, two generals (played by George Macready and Adolphe Menjou) order the regiment to advance in a suicide mission against a German position, their biggest motivator being their own glory and personal gain. Leading the men is the reluctant Col. Drax (Kirk Douglas), who does his best to protect the soldiers. When part of the troop retreats during the attack, the generals seek their punishment to maintain discipline. Thus a court is ordered to judge them, with Col. Drax defending the soldiers.
Col. Drax, in Paths of Glory (1957)
As laughably shocking as it was to hear Gen. Broulard say One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man every now and then, the real surprise came after the credits rolled and I began researching the making of this movie. Turns out, the French did massively execute their own soldiers for crimes such as desertion and disobedience, as did Britain, Germany, the US, and others, during what is regarded as one of the most brutal wars in History. So it makes sense that Kubrick’s project was rejected more than once, and that Paths of Glory (1957) was banned in a few European countries for many years – as it shined a very unfavourable light on the French army in particular.
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
by Thomas Gray
The film’s title, taking inspiration from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, perfectly evokes the narrative of individual greed and dehumanisation in the context of war; of the complete disregard for human life, ostensively for a common goal, but ultimately in the pursuit of personal gain. The Generals speak nonchalantly about more than half the soldiers not making it, of executing a hundred of their own, and even regrettably setting them apart from mere animals. In true Kubrick fashion, some of these moments are written with a healthy dose of black humour, but others are soberly dark.
— Spoilers Ahead! —
Kirk Douglas as Drax embodies the moral anchor viewers identify with, yet his lack of sufficient power proves to be frustratingly real. The trial of three french soldiers is a false mask of due process and, in the end, they really are shot dead by their own. As disturbing as the execution scene is, in that moment, as a viewer, we feel respected. Kirk plays the hero mesmerisingly well, but it would’ve been a disservice to have him saving the day.
someone else die.
— Gen. George Broulard, in Paths of Glory (1957)
In that same line of thought, the very last scene is fundamental. With some french soldiers in a bar, and a young german woman forced to sing in front of them, what starts as a cringing ogling scene turns into an ode to basic goodness and shared humanity. As the girl sings, the french soldiers quiet down, emotionally stirred, in what is reportedly inspired by true accounts of german and french soldiers singing together from their own trenches, during a Christmas ceasefire in 1914. Yet right when you’re feeling soothed, you’re pulled back into the reality of war, as a character alerts Col. Drax that the soldiers need to return to the field.
— It’s Safe Again —
It was immensely enjoyable to watch Kirk Douglas in this role. I had only seen him in Out of the Past (1947), so never in a true leading role. He had a very real on screen presence here: while a couple of lines had that Old Hollywood theatrical flare to them, many were subtly delivered, which contrasted rather nicely with the generals’ facade. Kubrick also allows for plenty of body language from Douglas, and you bet he works that chiseled face. Both Macready and Menjou were great, but one small performance that I especially loved was Joe Turkel’s – who went on to play cult favourites Dr. Tyrell in Blade Runner (1982), and the bartender in The Shining (1981).
Besides a tight script and strong performances, Paths of Glory (1957) also featured some impressive visuals, with hauntingly lit war scenes and symbolic compositions/sets that reflect Kubrick’s perfectionist nature. It’s indubitably one of the best classic films I’ve seen, so we’re counting this one as another Blind Spot success that I highly recommend to everyone. As with most movies from the director, even if you’re not a fan of classics, or war movies, you should give this one a try – it will likely surprise you!
Paths of Glory (1957)
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Writen by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, Humphrey Cobb (novel)
Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Running Time: 1h28min Genre: War, Drama, Classic
Synopsis After refusing to attack an enemy position, a general accuses the soldiers of cowardice and their commanding officer must defend them.
Previous Blind Spot Entries:
A Place in The Sun (1951) | January
Love With The Proper Stranger (1963) | February
Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) | March
La Notte (1961) | April
Metropolis (1927) | May
Have you seen Paths of Glory (1957)? How was your own Blind Spot this month?
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