Paths of Glory (1957) is one of the first masterpieces from acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick. It was loosely based on a rather obscure novel by Humphrey Cobb who published the story in 1935 about an actual group of French soldiers who were tried and condemned to death for cowardice in the face of the enemy during World War I.
The film opens up in 1916 where the narrator informs the audience that after two long years, the war has evolved into a series of trench warfare where victory was measured in precious yards. A series of trench fortifications ran from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel which stopped the advancing German army within thirty or so miles of Paris. Kirk Douglas plays the leading role as Col. Dax who is a company commander and chosen by the General Corp to defend three men who are chosen as scapegoats during a failed attack on an impregnable German position.
Rounding out the fantastic cast is veteran character actor, George Macready (Brig. Gen. Paul Mireau) who is the man behind the court martial of the defendants, Adolphe Menjou (Maj. Gen. Broulard), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), and Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol) who strikingly looks a lot like John Turturro. If there is ever a remake, Turturro ought to be cast as Pvt. Ferol.
Paths of Glory is a fantastic look into the psyche of the military and how self ambition can destroy so many lives. General Mireau is bucking for another star on his uniform. Gen. Broulard (his commanding officer) informs him that there is going to be an offensive in their sector and that Mireau’s company has been selected to take what is known as “the anthill”, a heavily fortified German position just beyond no man’s land (the area between both army’s trenches).
When Broulard discusses the possibility of Mireau’s advancement, the reserved and compassionate Mireau immediately changes on screen and begins to re-affirm Broulard that with a very depleted force, his outfit will be able to charge across the barbwire and take the German position in no time flat. It is quite possibly one of the greatest scenes ever in a motion picture in which you see Macready’s character become the vile character he is for the duration of the film.
The true hero of the film is Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax) who desperately races against time to prove that the three randomly selected men are the victims of a kangaroo court, Mireau’s ambition, and that the only reason they were selected was to cover up the fact that the attack on the anthill failed, and Gen. Mireau ordered an artillery barrage on the French trenches in order to drive them out in order to attack.
The film is a dazzling display of Kubrick’s masterful work as a truly gifted director and visionary. The assault across no man’s land is one of the most fantastic dolly shots ever attempted and one of my personal favorite scenes. The use of sound in the scene such as the whistle of artillery shells overhead and explosions sounds better than most digital effects done today. It is one of the greatest scenes of close quarter combat which ranks up there with Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and even Saving Private Ryan.
One of my other favorite scenes happens in the beginning of the film where a reconnaissance patrol is selected to go and identify bodies that are out in no man’s land. Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) is the officer selected to lead both Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Pvt. Lejeune on the mission. The mission turns into a fiasco where Lejeune is accidentally killed by a grenade by the inept and drunken Roget believing that Lejeune was an enemy patrol after he is sent out to scout a position ahead of them. Paris is the one who later discovers Lejeune’s mangled body and that he was in fact killed by Roget’s grenade before Roget fled fearing to be captured by the Germans.
Paris later confronts Roget in his quarters and the two then begin to threaten one another due to the events which happened on the patrol. It is because of this incident that the brave Paris is framed by Roget, and finds himself accused along with Pvts. Ferol and Arnaud after the failed attack.
Paths of Glory was released on Christmas Day, 1957 and achieved great recognition in the United States as a fantastic war film. The film however failed to win over audiences in both France and Belgium who disliked the representation of the French Army. The film underwent several severe edits in both Spain and France. The film wasn’t shown in its entirety in Spain till 1986, eleven years after Fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s death, and 1975 in France due to many national censor laws that had existed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Like M*A*S*H, Paths of Glory was selected in 1992 and deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry.
Paths of Glory is available on DVD through MGM/UA and can be rented via Netflix.