Paths of Glory is a 1957 World War 1 drama based on a true story, and its release on blu-ray is a reminder that Full Metal Jacket wasn't the only great war film made by Stanley Kubrick.
When an ambitious general is offered promotion if he'll have his men sent out on a suicide mission to capture a German held hill for France, he ignores the advice of his stoic and honourable Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, not to go through with the mission. As the men leave the trenches, it becomes clear that they have no chance of advancement and retreat. The furious General blunders his way through the situation trying to save face, and career, and orders that three men be chosen at random for trial and execution as cowards. It is up to Dax to defend them, but the need to provide scapegoats and maintain the hierarchy of command soon supersedes ideas of justice and morality.
There's so much to admire about Paths of Glory. As a war film, it's blisteringly moving in its portrayal of futility of, as Wilfred Owen described it, 'the pity of war'. And what's remarkable in that is the fact that we never meet 'the enemy', with the entire story being told about the French army. There isn't a German soldier in it and that's part of the point. Here, the enemy is war itself, made more corrupt by personal ambition and the need to maintain class order. Fight and be killed. Don't fight and your own side will kill you. It's as damning a film about war as any made before or since.
As a drama about justice, it's as powerful a film as any courtroom drama you care to mention. Dax, played brilliantly by Douglas, is the film's moral centre, fully aware of his responsibility to both his superiors and to his men. His strained restraint spills out when it becomes clear that the court is uninterested in justice, and his summary speech conveys all that needs to be said about the creeping, casual, dehumanising cruelty of war.
Plus there's Kubrick himself, behind the camera but ever present. You watch the film aware that it's an early work, fascinated by what he's doing, by what you'll see explored further in films he was yet to conceive. It's all there, even back then, his genius. Just watch the long tracking shots in the trenches – it's like a film school masterclass.
then there's the end. As the one woman in the film serenades the soldiers with
a tearful German folk song as they swig beer, their bawdy rowdiness turns to
tears and the song becomes a lament, the men aware that tomorrow they'll face
death again. As the poem from which the film takes its name says, 'The paths of
glory lead but to the grave.'
PATHS OF GLORY / DIRECTOR: STANLEY KUBRICK / SCREENPLAY: STANLEY KUBRICK, CALDER WILLINGHAM, JIM THOMPSON / STARRING: KIRK DOUGLAS, RALPH MEEKER, ADOLPHE MENJOU, GEORGE MACREADY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW