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.
–from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)
Depending on where you want to draw the line, Paths of Glory was either Stanley Kubrick’s fourth feature film or his second. Taking an inclusive view, his first two features were Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955). However, Kubrick later disowned the former, and both were independent, self-financed films that ran 72 and 67 minutes, respectively, and employed minimal crews comprised largely of family and friends.
Taking the exclusive view, Kubrick’s proper film-making career began with 1956’s The Killing (which Matt will visit later this week). The first of three films (along with Paths of Glory and Lolita) made under the auspices of a production company formed by Kubrick and fellow New Yorker James B. Harris, The Killing was Kubrick’s first experience with a proper crew, an actual budget (though still minimal, it was provided by distributor United Artists), and a real-life movie star, Sterling Hayden (who would later reunite with Kubrick as Brigadier General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove), and it propelled him into the big time.
Still considered an essential film noir, The Killing caught the eye of Kirk Douglas, who lept at the chance to star in Kubrick’s next project, an adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel Paths of Glory. (Three years later, Douglas would tap Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann as the director of his Roman epic Spartacus.) The novel (and film) center on an abuse of power by French officers during World War I supposedly inspired by the Souain corporals affair in which four French soldiers serving under General Géraud Réveilhac were unfairly executed for mutiny.
The film was Kubrick’s first to be set and shot outside of the United States (set in France, it was filmed in Germany, likely due to it’s portrayal of the French officers; the film was banned in France until 1975), and it was by far his most elaborate and high-profile production to that point. Watching it now, the 87-minute film shot in black-and-white in the old, boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a mono soundtrack, seems modest and quaint by the director’s later standards, which is part of it’s appeal. Paths of Glory is by far the most direct film in Kubrick’s discography. Lolita was nearly twice as long, and Dr. Strangelove, while similar in many ways in terms of format and theme, was far busier and complex. Even The Killing had a fractured chronology, which would later be a key inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s early films.
Paths of Glory, by comparison, is an exceedingly straight-forward film in terms of plot, theme, and structure. The first two thirds play like a typical court-martial film, one obvious comparison being The Cain Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart, which came out three years earlier. Paths is neatly bifurcated. The first half of the film sets up and executes the key events and the second half of the film unfolds the fallout from those events, but it is not a trial movie. The court martial itself turns out to be little more than a show trial that takes up just ten minutes of screen time, and the verdict is revealed with a third of the film’s running time remaining.
Warning: Spoilers below
That is where the film diverges from a typical military trial film such as The Caine Mutiny. In Caine, Bogart’s mentally unbalanced Lieutenant Commander Queeg is put under questioning during the trial of his Lieutenants (resulting in a captivating performance by Bogart). In Paths, guilty parties are never made to publicly answer for their deeds.
The film’s primary baddy, General Paul Mireau (played with breathless, scenery-chewing brio here by George Macready, who never actually twirls his mustache, but does have an “evil” scar and a pointy Van Dyke) reclines on a plush couch, lording over the show trial of three innocent soldiers, a trial he himself ordered to draw attention away from his own role in the defeat suffered in the first half of the film. The film’s true villain, General George Broulard, a man who hides his ruthlessness behind a sort of jovial paternalism in a manner reminiscent of vintage George Steinbrenner (beautifully portrayed with unnerving wit and charm by Adolphe Menjou in one of his final performances), isn’t even present and never does get a more severe comeuppance than a stern talking to from Douglas’s righteous Colonel Dax. The solders are ultimately executed for cowardice, but the one truly cowardly character in the film, Wayne Morris’s pathetic Lieutenant Roget, who, panic-stricken on a three-man steakout early in the film, kills one of his own men with a grenade then abandons his mission, is punished only by Dax putting him in charge of the execution.
If the film has any significant weakness it’s that it is perhaps too heavy-handed. From the opening scene of Broulard and Mireau plotting the suicide mission to take the strategic “Anthill” (a name that captures the vicious cynicism of the script, co-penned by Kubrick), the screen simply drips with contempt for these powerful men who lightheartedly trade on the lives of their enlisted men for personal political and public gains (speaking of which, as I write this I can’t help but have the Black Sabbath classic “War Pigs”, which shares the film’s specific critique of war and bleak tone, playing in my head).
Then again, though Kubrick would make a masterpiece by making a wickedly hilarious satire based on the idea of mutually assured nuclear destruction seven years later, the subject matter here demands a certain severity, and that severity is certainly in keeping with the tone of Kubrick’s later films. Besides, Kubrick does lighten the mood a bit with Menjou’s Broulard and the heavy-lidded Private Maurice Ferol, one of the three doomed soldiers, played by eccentric scene-stealing Brooklynite character actor Timothy Carey. Kubrick also lets a bit of light in at the end, courtesy of his future wife, Christiane Harlan (billed as Susanne Christian).
After an hour and 24 minutes of portraying men as callous, viscous creatures (Douglas’s closing argument in the trial begins “Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.”), he introduces Harlan, the lone woman in the film. Harlan, a German prisoner, is made to sing for a pub full of rowdy, leering pub soldiers. As her voice begins to cut through the crowd, the catcalls fall silent, and the faces, young and old, become stricken to match her own tear-streaked countenance as the soldiers begin to hum in unison with her, having rediscovered the humanity the war had buried deep within.
Paths of Glory may lack the scope and visual majesty of Kubrick’s later films, but it lacks none of the impact and stands among his finest work.