BACK-STORY: “Paths of Glory” was Stanley Kubrick’s first great film. The fact that he also directed several other movies on the 100 Greatest list (“Spartacus”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “Full Metal Jacket”) makes a case for his being the greatest war movie director. The movie was based on the novel by Howard Cobb which was published in 1935. The teenage Kubrick had read the book in his father’s study. Kubrick had trouble getting funding because of the depressing nature of the plot. This problem was solved when Kirk Douglas was brought on board. His production company took on the task and Douglas was paid 1/3 of the approximately $1 million budget. He was not in it for the money as Douglas was committed to the project in principle. The movie was a critical smash, but only a modest success at the box office and predictably did not do well in Europe. In fact, it was banned in France for two decades. Incredibly, the movie received zero Academy Award nominations and is not on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list!
OPENING: The movie is set on the Western Front in France in 1916. A narrator summarizes the futility of the war up to that point. It is a stalemate. French Army Chief of Staff Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) visits Gen. Mireau (George MacReady) at his chateau. Broulard orders an attack on an impregnable German position called the “Ant Hill”. Mireau is at first against the insane, suicidal assault, but Broulard uses flattery and promotion bribery to bring him around. He does not have to remind MacReady that he will be safely witnessing the attack from a bunker.
SUMMARY: Mireau visits the trenches to get some face-time with his beloved cannon fodder. In an amazingly long tracking shot with no cuts, he buddies up to his men by repetitively asking them “Hello, soldier, ready to kill more Germans?” When he encounters an obviously shell-shocked soldier, MacReady huffs that there is “no such thing as shell-shocked” and he slaps him ala Patton. Mireau meets the regimental commander Col. Dax (Douglas) in his bunker. (Douglas gets his obligatory shirtless scene.) He informs the skeptical Dax of the attack. Mireau is optimistic that the casualties will only be around 60%! That figure is arrived at by adding 5% from their own barrage + 10% in no man’s land + 20% through the German wire + 25% taking the position. The men will “absorb bullets and shrapnel and by doing so make it possible for others to get through”. Dax explodes and quotes Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” When Mireau suggests that Dax take a furlough, Dax backs down and promises to take the “Ant Hill”.
A night patrol is ordered to reconnoiter the position. Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) takes two men with him and then proceeds to panic and kill one in a friendly fire incident. The steaming dead body of Lejuene is the only graphic shot in the movie. Afterwards, Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker) confronts the drunken Roget, but is apprised of the fact that officers hold all the cards. Roget: “ Who’s word do you think they are going to believe- or accept?”
The attack the next day is one of the great combat scenes in war movie history. It begins with another long tracking shot as Dax moves through the trench like Mireau did, but without the faux bravado. The assault is a tour de force in battle cinematography as a camera on a dolly tracks Dax and the cannon fodder through a hellish landscape. It is obvious to everyone, except the spectating Mireau, that the attack has no chance of success. Dax leads the men across no man’s land. (It took 60 men, eight cranes, and three weeks to turn a German farm into the scarred landscape of trench warfare.) That 60% figure is looking optimistic as men go down left and right. It is futile like many an attack in the war. Roget’s unit does not even leave the trench. Mireau orders the French artillery to open fire on them, but the battery commander refuses without a written order. The incensed general vows revenge for the failed assault. “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!”
|Follow this whistle, dogs|
At the chateau, Broulard, Mireau, and Dax negotiate how many men need to be court-martialed for cowardice pour encourager les autres. Broulard: “There are few things more stimulating than seeing someone else die.” Mireau is talked into being reasonable and accepting only three sacrificial lambs - one from each company. Broulard is in a jocular mood throughout and Dax is aghast. The scene foreshadows “Catch-22” and “MASH”.
Roget tabs Paris to get rid of the eyewitness to his cowardice. Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lottery. Ferol (Timothy Carey) is chosen because he is a social misfit. Dax volunteers to be their defense attorney. The trial is held in the chateau. A no-nonsense general serves as judge and it is apparent he is set on the end result with as little court room theatrics as possible. Each patsy gets his time on the stand, not that it will make any difference. Ironically, none was a coward and even Paris (whose unit did not leave the trench) had wanted to attack, but was knocked unconscious by a corpse falling on him. Dax gives an impassioned closing argument which includes the line “miscarriage of justice”. Guess what the verdict is.
The trio now have doom hanging over them like a muddy trench coat. Paris ruminates about how a cockroach has a better future than him, resulting in Ferol smashing it and deadpanning: “Now you have the edge on him.” When a priest comes to visit, Arnaud attacks him. Paris intervenes and punches him, resulting in a skull fracture. A doctor repairs Arnaud enough for him to be executed. After Dax is informed about Mireau’s attempt to bombard his own men, he confronts Gen. Bourland to attempt blackmail. It is unclear whether this ploy will work. Surely they won’t execute these innocent men.
Sorry, happy ending insisters, for the good of the war effort and to avoid future mutinies (mission not accomplished!), these dudes must die. The men are led to the posts. Actually, the unconscious Arnaud is carried on a stretcher. If you ever have to stage an execution by firing squad, this movie acts as a good tutorial.
In the afterglow of the spectacle, Broulard and Mireau eat heartily in the chateau. Bourlard: “This one had a certain splendor to it.” Dax arrives. On cue, Broulard brings up the bombardment order. There will have to be an inquiry. Mireau realizes he’s not heading for promotion after all. He insists that he is “the only completely innocent man in this affair.” OMG someone please slap that man! When Mireau stomps off, Broulard offers the promotion to Dax. Dax fumes and calls him a “degenerate.” Broulard’s riposte is that Dax is an “idealist”. Oh, snap!
CLOSING: Dax gets word that the battered unit is heading up to the front again. He passes by a cantina where a German girl (the future Mrs. Kubrick) sings “The Faithful Hussar” to a crowd of soldiers. The hoots and catcalls are transformed to tears as the men hum along. There is still some humanity in this inhumane war.
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. It is not your typical war movie. There is only the one graphic corpse and there is no blood. The acting is stellar and Kirk Douglas takes off his shirt. There is only one female character, but she is significant and closes out the film. If your significant other enjoys bravura movie-making, she will enjoy the visual treats the movie.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Howard Cobb was inspired by a newspaper story about an incident in the war where four French poilu were executed for unit cowardice. After the war, their families sued and two families were rewarded one franc each and the other two got nothing. It was not uncommon in the French army and others (not including the A.E.F.) to execute men to strengthen the will of others. The scenario in the movie is only indirectly related to the famous mutinies by French soldiers in the war. The refusal to follow orders to continue wasteful attacks occurred wholesale in the army in 1917 after Nivelle's Chemins des Dames offensive to win the war came far short of the optimistic palaver fed to the troops. There were some executions initiated by Petain as part of his otherwise empathetic diffusing of the situation. It is safe to assume that among the 10% of men who were court-martialed and executed, there were undoubtedly some who did not deserve death. The French government would have agreed with Mireau that the tonic might be harsh for a few, but effective for the masses.
|the three men held reponsible for |
not taking the untakeable
CRITIQUE: This was only Kubrick’s fourth film, but you can clearly see the style that made him one of the great directors. The cinematography by Georg Krause is magnificent. “Bridge on the River Kwai” took that Oscar, but you could argue that “Paths to Glory” is superior and certainly deserved a nomination. Speaking of which, although it could be argued that “Bridge” is the overall better film, no one in their right mind would say today that the nominees “Peyton Place”, “Sayanora”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, and “Twelve Angry Men” were more deserving than “Paths”. Especially those first two! The movie is famous among film buffs for the long tracking shots (especially the battle scene) and Kubrick’s abrupt cuts. He is not big on fades in this movie. The interior scenes with their baroque mise en scenes and the deep focusing are a clinic. We also get a lot of off centered shots. Disconcertingly to modern war movie lovers, the film lacks the frenetic cutting used to add to the fog of war. In “Paths of Glory”, you know what is going on during a battle. You are not lost or confused.
The musical score is sparse, but Gerald Fried (who went on to score “Gilligan’s Island”!) encouraged the use of snare drums in war movies. The closing song was of Napoleonic vintage and ends with the lines: “Oh please Mother, bring a light / My sweetheart is going to die”. Coincidentally, Louis Armstrong had a hit with a version of it one year before the movie was released.
The acting is outstanding. Douglas is his usual charismatic self, even more so because he was passionate about the project. His Dax is one of the great anti-authority figures in war movie history and ahead of his time in the genre. He runs the gamut of that stereotype. Sarcasm, slow-burns, seething, and finally snapping. The supporting cast is not intimidated. MacReady and Menjou are all-time slimy. Morris (who was a highly decorated ace in WWII) creates one of the great cowards in war movie history. Ralph Meeker does his best work in an underrated career. The most fascinating character is Ferol. The eccentric Carey plays him to the hilt and his scene stealing aggravated the rest of the cast. For instance, when he is being led by the Father to the execution and he bites into his arm - that was unscripted and almost got him punched in the face by the bemused Emile Meyer. Carey was fired towards the end of the 64 day shoot and a double had to be used for the confession scene.
|Steal one more scene and maybe those won't be blanks|
The movie is not subtle in its themes. It has been described as an anti-war movie, but it is more appropriately labeled as an anti-command movie. The battle scene is certainly horrific, but it is only seven minutes and no major character is killed. The real focus of the plot is the machinations of the generals. Broulard and Mireau are loathsome, but fairly representative of high command in the war. Obviously, French high command in particular (Broulard resembles Joffre), but all of the belligerents in general. It is no secret that the tactics used in the war were pigheaded, but the script enlightens about the use of court-martials to “motivate” the common soldiers. A related theme is the dominance of the officer class over the enlisted. Not only are most officers motivated by promotion (as opposed to the grunts just trying to survive), they use their position to wriggle out of culpability. The only caveat I have with the themes is the ending cantina scene tends to dilute them. The movie would have been better served ending with the executions. However, considering the rumors that Douglas had to prevent Kubrick from giving the men a reprieve, it could have been much worse. Having a tearful singalong by the cannon fodder signals that war goes on. By the way, contrast the females at the end of “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket”. ‘Nuff said. The songs have a similar vibe, though.
|Kubrick: Okay, if I can't have a happy ending, at least|
I want to end with a scene featuring this chick I want to go to bed with.
How realistic is it in military matters? The trenches are a little too wide, but that was to facilitate those awesome tracking shots so all is forgiven on that score. The night patrol seems typical, although fratricide by a cowardly leader was uncommon. The main battle sequence is so well done that I show it in my American History class to prepare my students for their letter from a soldier at the front assignment. (The other clips are from “All Quiet”, “Sergeant York”, and “The Lost Battalion”.) Special kudos to the German police officers who were the extras and did some of the better dying in a war movie. The sound effects bear mentioning. The whining of the artillery shells and the resulting explosions add to the impression of Hell on Earth.
CONCLUSION: “Paths of Glory” is one of the great war movies and definitely belongs in the top twenty. I think #2 is a bit high, but I do not have a major problem with it. It sets out to make an impression and it succeeds perfectly. Kubrick plus Douglas is a winning combination, as seen in “Spartacus”. It is more court room and behind the scenes oriented than most war movies, but it does have one of the great combat scenes to balance that. Considering some of the laughable inclusions on the list, “Paths” is comfortably placed. I can see where it would be a movie that the eclectic panel of military experts and cinema experts could agree on.
Acting - A+
Action - 6/10
Accuracy - B
Realism - B
Plot – A
GRADE = A
the battle scene