Paths of Glory (1957)

“Hello there, soldier. Ready to kill more Germans?”

Paths of Glory is an anti-war film that was both written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. It actually caused so much controversy that it was banned in several countries, including France and Germany, for it’s anti-war sentiment and also for presenting the French army in an undesirable way. Over fifty years later though, it is considered a masterpiece and one of Kubrick’s many greats that everyone should see.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has been ordered to make a suicidal attack on an enemy fortification called the Ant Hill by General Mireau (George Macready). Mireau knows that this is a nearly impossible mission but has been promised a promotion if he allows it to go forward. During the attack however, enemy fire is so heavy that many men aren’t able to push forward or leave the trenches at all. Mireau observes that it is a massive failure and, in order to save his reputation, wants to arrest and charge three men with cowardice in the face of the enemy. If found guilty, this would mean the men would be put to death by firing squad. Colonel Dax recognizes this as a huge wrongdoing and attempts to defend the three men.

This is pretty much the opposite of Dr. Strangelove in tone. Strangelove was a satire of course and was meant to be both hilarious and horrifying. However, Paths of Glory is an emotional and dramatic telling of military politics that is meant to unnerve you. And Kubrick does this most excellently.

What really stuck out to me most about this film in particular was its almost poetic dialogue. There is a scene between two men the night before the big attack on the Ant Hill. One man asks the other if he would rather die by a bayonet or a machine gun. The other man replies that he would much prefer a machine gun, of course, as it is quicker and less painful. The first man then goes on to ramble about how pretty much every man would choose a quicker death if possible because it isn’t death that we are afraid of, but pain. If a man were truly afraid of death he would be “walking around in a funk” all of the time because death is truly the only certain thing about life. 

In another scene, the three men that are being held prisoners until their execution are nervously talking to each other in their cell. One of the men points out a cockroach and says “Tomorrow it will be alive, but I will not”. This little concept seemed so absurd yet really struck me deeply. It’s these little aspects of the film that make it so emotional and pull you in to the situation of the soldiers.

The characters here are so great because they feel so real. From the lowly soldiers, to Colonel Dax, to the smug General Mireau. They all feel like they are real people. And when the climax of the movie happens in which the three soldiers are executed, we can’t help but cringe, even though we knew it was coming. Kubrick makes it so that every element of the movie feels realistic and this is why it has such an effect. It makes us feel disgusted with the fact that during a war, maybe the enemy doesn’t have to be another country, but our own. 

Kubrick chooses a sort of ambiguous ending for this film. Colonel Dax is heading back to his quarters after the execution, likely feeling discouraged by the humanity. He hears laughter coming from a nearby pub and stops to look in. He observes his soldiers mocking and whistling at a captured, German girl who has been forced on stage. They force her to sing but as she does, the soldiers quiet down and start to hum the tune as well, as it is a tune they are familiar with. This was a beautiful scene because, in my opinion, it showed that the soldiers had realized that the Germans were people just as well, and they even shared certain songs with the French. That in the end, war isn’t between good vs. bad, but people vs. people.

I did not know what to expect out of this film before I watched it. I hadn’t even heard of it before I started this month’s Bucket List. However, I’m very glad I put this film on my list for this month. It has been said to be one of Kubrick’s best films and it is certainly one that still holds meaning, even after half a decade.

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