A Paths of Glory Review: Sorrow and Truth

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, and that wealth ever gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

There are two types of war films, the cheap Hollywood bullshit the masses devour and consume wholly, films that glamorize war and sugarcoat what is essentially the biggest crime against humanity, and then there are films like Paths of Glory, which succeed outstandingly in exposing what war is all about: greed, selfishness and a lot of hypocrisy. Paths of Glory is a 1957 film by legendary director Stanley Kubrick and starring iconic actor Kirk Douglas. If Kubrick had any virtue, it was honesty, and his fourth film is proof of that. Paths of Glory was banned in many places around the world, especially in Europe, due to its “sensitive content” but art survives, and this film did, and it can keep showing us how ugly war is till the end of our days.

The film starts with a voice-over describing the state of war between France and Germany, a state where successful attacks are measured by hundreds of yards, but that is set to change soon. A general asks his subordinate to take the “Anthill”, which the Germans have had control over for a long time, in no longer than two days. The subordinate tries to explain the futility of the mission due to the tiredness of the soldiers, but his mind changes quickly when his superior mentions the possibility of a promotion. General Mireau, who naturally accepts the mission in hopes of a promotion, walks down the trenches to assign it to a subordinate himself. This is not only the film’s most iconic scene, it is one of cinema’s most iconic shots. The camera is in front of the general as he walks forward and salutes soldiers asking them, “Ready to kill more Germans?”, until we reach Colonel Dax’s locale, and the dance begins again, but the difference this time around is that Dax is pressured into the mission instead of tempted by more wealth and power. The attack is unsurprisingly a massive failure, and an enraged General Mireau even orders the shooting of his own men upon seeing them retreat, and when his command is ignored, he sets to get his vengeance. He picks three soldiers from the army and sets them on trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy to set an example.

Stanley Kubrick once said in an interview, “Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved - that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure”. He was always interested in war, and his filmography is proof of that, often depicting it as a farce to show its vanity and dreadfulness. Paths of Glory is an adaptation of a novel by the same name by author Humphrey Cobb, and the novel is actually based on a true story. The act of executing random men to set an example was very widespread in World War I, especially in the French army. The film was a modest box office success but earned Stanley Kubrick a lot of praise, even though it was banned in many countries.

What impresses me the most about Paths of Glory is how it leads the audience to expect one thing, and then so abruptly goes against all our expectations. What was first a story about a suicide mission quickly became about three soldiers who are in mortal danger, but not from the enemy, but from their comrades. The film depicts the ugliness of war through the hypocrisy of its participants. General Mireau preaches that he is not interested in promotions but only in the lives of the men he is responsible for, but when offered one, he leads them all to ruin and tries to punish them for it. His superior, Broulard, recognizes the grand scheme of things, and does absolutely nothing to save the men who are to be executed, but appreciates Dax’s efforts to save them, thinking he’s only doing it for a promotion. “You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot”, is what he says to him once he finds out that his efforts were genuine. And just when I thought the film gave me all it had to offer, the last scene came in and swoop me off my feet. A German captured girl is forced to sing in front of the troops as entertainment, the troops cheer on and make noise but soon become silent and teary-eyed once she starts singing.

Paths of Glory is not so much a criticism of war as it is a criticism of man. It shows the pure evil this animal is capable of in a way that celebrates humanity at the same time. Watch this film. It’s amazing.


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