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