Monday, October 30, 2006

Anti-heroism in Paths of Glory

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.


  1. Jai, great post. It encapsulates the essence of the film so well that I almost feel like I don't need to see it now, even though your review leaves me wanting to watch it right away!

  2. Great post! A shame that I haven't been able to catch this till now.

    The question has of course been addressed before, in film and literature.
    I've no point actually, but this seems to suggest that Catch-22 and M*A*S*H were written/made earlier. No?

  3. Concerning accents, I would much prefer the actors speak in an american accent than a fake french one. We know you're not french so why bother trying to sound french.
    I liked how scorcese had the jews speak with an american accent and the romans speak with a british one in Last Temptation of christ. That's taking an even further cinematic license, but i prefer it to aramaic or some BS middle eastern sounding accent.

  4. Zero: thanks for pointing that out, I'll change the sentence. I must have been thinking of my own chronology as a reader/film viewer - since I'd read Catch 22 and seen the Altman before watching Paths of Glory!

    Anangbhai: agree completely. One problem in this case was that a couple of the senior actors (Menjou, Macready) had an aristocratic way of speaking that was distinctly non-American (even though it wasn't quite accented) - and it seemed at odds with the other performers.

  5. "...and it’s often been suggested that war is best treated as a horror-comedy."

    I seem to have seen only the very psychotic movies made by Kubrick!Shall make it a point to see this one. Also, have you seen any production of Dario Fo's 'Accidntal death of an Anarchist'? If not,grab a copy of the text,the word tragi-comic cannot be better exumplified. You smile n laugh yet the sickening feeling in yout tummy n head just doesn't go away!

  6. > 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?

    People who will to martyr in such situation are called courageous. Maybe they do not have the courage to turn back and face the society who might boo them.
    To see what is right and not to do it is cowardice. ~Confucius

  7. Isn't it a little curious that "we" prefer to wait out the wars and sit here, like the "officers" mentioned who send forth their troops ( ahead of themselves ), and intellectualise whether war is insanity or not, whether it is cowardice or not?

    I do not see much of a choice ( or for that matter thought ) amongst those who make it a profession.
    And, of course, I do not feel it is necessary...


  8. Jai: Lovely. Can I add a pitch for that final scene though - the one with the German girl singing. It's such a perfectly poetic scene.

    The thing that I've always found disappointing about Paths of Glory is that Kubrick doesn't quite manage to resist the temptation to have the 'evil' General brought to justice. I think it would have been a much stronger film if the general had got away with it.

  9. sorry no time to read the matter. Anyways keep it up and plz do visit my blog as

  10. Falstaff: true. But I suppose they had to make some concession to studio demands. Besides, I love the final scene between Dax and the Adolphe Menjou character - where Menjou assumes Dax did what he did because he wanted Mireau's job (after all, it's just the way things work out here, in this mad world) and we are allowed to see Dax's idealism as being somewhat foolish.

    Btw Suzanne Christian, who played the German POW, married Kubrick subsequently. She was a painter and much of her work has been used in the set design for Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange.

  11. The famous trench shots were duplicated - almost moment by moment - in another fine film: "A Very Long Engagement".

    It's very hard to pick my favorite Kubrick film, but Paths of Glory comes damn close :)

  12. sorry no time to read the matter.

    Khozema: Thanks, that may be the honestest comment I've ever received for any of these long film posts! Btw, I note from your profile that Anaconda and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun are among your favourite films. In very different ways, those are anti-heroic too.

    Kronoskraor: Kubrick's Dr Strangelove was another of those horror-comedies. No, not seen/read the Fo yet. Will try to get hold of it.

    willothewisp: what's curious about it? I intellectualise about a lot of things without experiencing any of them firsthand :)
    More seriously, I must insist that I personally haven't requested that any of these wars be fought...

  13. And for all those of you in the UK (or perhaps in London) you can see Paths of Glory at a special screening in aid of the Socialist Worker Appeal, introduced by former MP Tony Benn.

    Paths of Glory
    Mon 6 Nov, 7.30pm
    Friends House, Euston Rd (opp Euston station)
    £6/£4. To book phone 020 7637 1838 or 020 7819 1182

    (sorry for the blatant plug)

  14. "Paths of glory" may be a better made movie but my favorite anti hero anti war film is "The Americanization of Emily".

  15. Great post and excellent discussion. It got me all psyched up again to watch the movie!

  16. Nice analysis.

    There are many strong scenes in the film. The last meal, the bandaged prisoner being tied to the post, and finally, the song by the German woman prisoner. That song never fails to move me to tears.

  17. I revisited Paths of Glory recently and was less impressed than I was the first time around. A lot of it seemed quite unsubtle. A somewhat melodramatic film, that meets with almost universal acclaim thanks to Kubrick's very high reputation in middlebrow circles.

    I recently posted on imdb on the subject of good and bad melodramas. Do check out the
    and let me know what you think. I suppose I sound overly critical of the film in the post. But I suppose it is in order given the unqualified acclaim heaped on it.