Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory

Directed by Stanley Kubrick 1957

This film, banned for many years in France, is loosely based on a true story of five French soldiers executed for mutiny during World War I. The executions were subsequently found to be unjust. Two of the families were awarded one franc each, while the other three received nothing.

The film opens at a lavish Chateau in France (1916). General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives to request that General Mireau (George Macready) order his soldiers to launch an attack against a strongly defended enemy position known as the anthill. Mireau is initially reluctant to do so and considers the request ridiculous, as his division is depleted through death and injury and the remainder are exhausted. However his ambition is stoked by the lure of promotion, and although he claims to care for the well being of his men, he concurs to the suicidal request. Later he informs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) that during the attack, “5% of the men will be killed by our own artillery, 10% will die getting though no man’s land, 20% more will die on the wire, and a further 25% to actually take the anthill.”

The attack fails amidst carnage and slaughter. During the battle, General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on a company of his own men who have not left their trenches, but the artillery commander refuses to carry out the command unless he receives written and signed orders. In a rage the General accuses his soldiers of being cowards and initiates a court martial with the intention of executing a hundred men.

This number is subsequently reduced to three. The men are to be picked at random. Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is chosen because he witnessed his commanding officer, the cowardly Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), killing one of his own men in panic during a reconnaissance mission. Roget also has a personal vendetta against him. Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by chance, and Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) attributes his fate to being a social misfit.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a former criminal lawyer, defends the men of the charge of cowardice at the court-martial. The trial turns out to be a farce. The military judges refuse to allow the full indictment against the men to be read or have any transcription taken of the trial. The three men who did their best amidst the difficulties of war are found guilty. They are held overnight in a cell where they are served their last meal, talk about their fate, and are visited by a priest (Emile Meyer).

What happens in the cell during the night is in bleak contrast to a formal officers ball where Dax goes to Broulard with sworn written testimony from several soldiers concerning Mireau’s order to fire on his troops. He hopes that the evidence will change the outcome of the court martial.

The next morning, amidst military ceremony and attending media, the soldiers are brought for execution. Arnaud is now tied onto a stretcher because of a serious injury sustained during the night. The three men are executed.

Later the cynical, politically motivated General Broulard forces the self-righteous Mireau to resign, threatening him with a formal enquiry for the order to fire on his own men. He then offers Dax, whom he calls ‘my boy’, Mireau’s job. Stung by such cynical behaviour, Dax reproaches him as a “degenerate, sadistic old man”. The General realises that he has misjudged the Colonel, who truly cares for the welfare of his soldiers. Broulard goes on to state: “Colonel Dax, you’re a disappointment to me. You’ve spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau’s command. You are an idealist and I pity you as I would the village idiot.”

As the exchange between the two officers continues, Broulard declares, “Wherein have I done wrong?” Dax quietly replies, “Because you don’t know the answer to that question, I pity you.”

The final heart rendering sequence takes place in a tavern with a tear-stained, innocent German girl (Susanne Christian in the credits, in actuality Christiane Harlan, who subsequently married Stanley Kubrick) singing a ballad in German to a group of French soldiers. The song, once widely known, is called “Der Treue Hussar” (“The Faithful Soldier”).

Listening outside, Colnel Dax is informed that they have been ordered to return to the front immediately. He replies with the last lines of the film: “Well, give the men a few more minutes, sergeant.”

I doubt if the words of Francois Truffaut – “There is no such thing as a true anti-war film because the battle scenes make the war look exciting” – can be applied to Paths of Glory. The film shows the battle scene as confused, squalid, and filled with heedless death. It offers a portrayal of war as a form of madness with those involved propelled by events beyond their control. Kubrick was to develop this theme further in the black comedy Dr. Stranglove (in which Peter Sellers gave a pivotal performance). Paths of Glory has not lost its edge over the years, and like Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s book – Im Westen Nichts Neus) , it draws into question not only the glorification of war, but also why are we driven to war in the first place.

The film was prohibited for viewing in France until 1975 and was censored by the Franco regime for being anti-military.

The title of the film comes from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard:

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.

(Available on DVD)

Ted McNamara