Summary: During the First World War, the French military orders a court-martial accusing soldiers of cowardice after an attack on an enemy position fails.
It is a truism in the Army that shit rolls downhill, and in Paths of Glory Stanley Kubrick doesn’t argue with it; he just presents it for the nonsense it is and the sort of stupidity it can produce. One general tells another to attack and hold a strategic position. The general knows it’s a mistake but proceeds when a promotion is dangled in front of him; he orders a colonel to carry out the attack. The colonel knows it’s a mistake but proceeds when he’s threatened to be relieved of his command. The colonel orders a lieutenant to lead a reconnaissance. The lieutenant kills one of his own men by mistake and flees the scene; when a corporal threatens to bring charges, the lieutenant asks: “Have you ever tried to bring charges against an officer. It’s your word against mine. Whose word do you think they’ll believe? Let me put it another way: whose word do you think they’ll accept?”
Paths of Glory is shot in crisp black and white. It has long tracking shots across No Man’s Land and winding along through trenches, and a clever, startling moment utilising deep focus photography. We are looking across a muddy field at a crashed bi-plane when a flare lights up overhead, illuminating the foreground to reveal that the shadowy lumps aren’t rocks or muddy knolls but corpses. The flare dies out and the corpses are once again put in darkness. There is a very realistic, dirty, brutal battle scene. The film is gritty about the brutality of war and the bloody-mindedness of the military mentality. A general refuses to believe that a solder is shell-shocked (as he refuses to believe there is such a thing). Another officer regards ordinary soldiers as “scum” acting as if they have a herd mentality. In some ways it is harrowing to watch because you know what’s going to happen and few seem interested in stopping it.
For a film generally remembered as a harsh examination of the pity of war, it has scenes that are highly stylised, with theatrical blocking and some of the dodgiest acting this side of an am-dram production. The actors aren’t really playing people, but stock-types: coward, brigand, rebel, tyrant, and so on, and many of the scenes (particularly in the first act) are simplistic moral or philosophical arguments disguised as drama. And right in the middle is jutting his jaw and sucking in his gut (I always imagined he insisted on a scene where he is bare-chested) and getting righteous and angry. It’s a very typical Douglas performance, which is not to say it’s bad, and he’s virtually the only human in the film, which is to say he’s the only character who hasn’t been turned into a cog in the military machine.
Once the court-martial begins, the absurdity of the situation and the way in which Douglas is prevented from presenting a proper defence will have you wondering if the military really can be this stupid. Three men are selected to be tried for cowardice. One (Ralph Meeker) is the corporal who threatened to expose his lieutenant’s cowardice; one has his name picked at random (Joseph Turkel); one is considered ‘socially undesirable’ (Timothy Carey): the film doesn’t expand on that, so you can imagine anything you want (it might simply be because he looks like a peace-loving beatnik).
As with much of Kubrick’s work, there is an awful lot of formal composition in the frame, and to further belittle his characters he places them in the cavernous rooms of a chateau. This is a very loud picture: you can’t ignore the sound of footsteps on marble floors, nor can you ignore the obvious contrast between generals calmly discussing brutal acts while sitting on beautiful furniture surrounded by Renaissance art. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the execution of three soldiers is framed in a way that will make you think of Calvary. What redemptive power is there in this crucifixion?
The film has a curious coda, which seems to belong to a different film. A group of drunken soldiers listen to a young German girl sing a song that reduces them to tears. It’s a moment of strange and sad beauty, a brief reprieve from the war, and a rebuke to the blind patriotism. The song is ‘Der treue Husar’ (The Faithful Hussar), which might make you think it’s a flag-waver, but it is in fact far more personal. It’s a folk song about a soldier who leaves the Front to be by his dying sweetheart. Incidentally, the pretty blond girl singing it is German actress and painter Susanne Christian, the future Mrs Kubrick.