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 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, by Thomas Gray)
There’s a harrowing scene late in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory that help bring the film’s real concerns into clearer focus. Three soldiers of the French army have been condemned to death by their own superiors, for alleged cowardice in the face of a mission that we know was suicidal and unreasonable from the start. Their commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), stands helplessly by: a lawyer in civilian life, he had tried to defend his men in the army court by pointing out their shows of courage in past missions, but to no avail.
Of the condemned men, one is relatively stoical about his fate; another is barely conscious because of an accident in his prison cell the previous night (leading one of the senior officers to tell a warden: “Make sure his eyes are open when the firing squad takes aim”). But the third man bawls all the way to the execution area. “Don’t kill me,” he wails, “I don’t want to die!” He squirms and flinches until the very last second of his life, and watching him we squirm too; weaned as we have been on war films founded on heroism and panache, we are now face to face with anti-heroism of the bleakest kind. And it’s much easier to identify with.
Up to this point, Paths of Glory had seemed to be a film about grave injustice; about three good soldiers being made scapegoats for the callous games of their power-mad superiors. The main question seemed to be: are they shirkers who had to be punished as an example, or brave men who were asked to perform an impossible task? But watching the terrified soldier resist the meaningless ending of his life, we realise that this is beside the point. The real question is: in the face of war’s insanity, is it reasonable to expect a sane person not to be a coward, to choose death over life? ("I can't understand these armchair officers, fellas trying to fight a war from behind a desk, worrying about whether a mouse is gonna run up their pants," says the callous General Mireau at one point. "I don't know, General," replies Dax. "If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I'd take the mice every time.")
The question has of course been addressed before, in film and literature. One thinks of great comic works such as Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and it’s often been suggested that war is best treated as a horror-comedy. Paths of Glory is a rare example of a great anti-war film, indeed a great anti-heroic film, that is dramatic and austere on the surface and yet creates its own subversive comedy. How can you not smile in disbelief when Dax’s senior officer tells him not to quibble over fractions (they’re discussing whether the expected casualties would be 30 or 40 per cent of the squad). Or when two soldiers discuss whether it’s preferable to be killed by a bayonet or a machine gun. Or when Mireau, sealing the fate of his own soldiers, snaps, “If the little sweethearts won't face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!”
This was Kubrick’s breakthrough film, though by all accounts it was Kirk Douglas, the producer-star, who insisted on the downbeat (and un-Hollywoodish) ending. Given that Douglas began his career as a hunky leading man who specialised in physical roles (as in Champion; picture on left), it’s notable that this film, which stands in opposition to every idea of swaggering machismo, was so close to his heart. But then, he was always a much more interesting actor than a casual glance through his filmography would suggest: by the early 1950s, he had already started to expand his range, playing anti-heroic roles even within the framework of genre films such as Detective Story. Watching Paths of Glory helps me put in perspective his disagreements with John Wayne, who wanted macho leading men to play tough heroes, not “wimps”, onscreen (more on that in this post). If ever a film made a good case for “wimpishness” over “heroism”, this is it.
Paths of Glory is beautifully shot, justly famous for George Krause’s black-and-white photography, the long tracking shots in the trenches (the setting is WW1) and the performances, especially by George Macready as the power-hungry Mireau and veteran actor Adolphe Menjou as the manipulative General Broulard. To an extent, it suffers from the artificiality of American actors speaking in English while playing Frenchmen (it’s understood that this is cinematic licence, but it does get jarring, especially today, when we are more accustomed to realism – or at least to the idea of realism). Still, it was an enormous achievement for a film like this to even get made at a time when Hollywood was awash with gung-ho war movies that made guns and cannons look exciting. The biggest testament to its effectiveness is that it was banned in some countries (including France) for decades, and that it is still looked at askance by extreme right-wingers and by those who like to romanticise war. Luckily, the DVD is now widely available.
[Did an edited version of this for the New Sunday Express.]
Also see this lengthy analysis by Tim Dirks.