Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Starring Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready
If you don’t count Fear and Desire, and from what I can tell Stanley Kubrick would really rather you didn’t, Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s third film of twelve and his first certain classic; if you don’t count Fear and Desire, it’s also Kubrick’s first film about war, a topic that he’d return to with Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, and would hit on obliquely with Barry Lyndon and Spartacus. Few other ideas as specific as war come up so frequently in Kubrick’s films, and it’s arguable that no other concept spans his career so fully.
Paths of Glory, like Kubrick’s other war movies, is not shy about how it approaches the military. In Strangelove, the military is utterly ridiculous; in Full Metal Jacket, it’s absurd with a capital Camus. Paths of Glory casts the military, particularly its upper brass, as infuriating. In its first scene, General Broulard (Menjou) and General Mireau (Macready) discuss orders from headquarters for an assault on an essentially impregnable redoubt, the Ant Hill. Broulard dangles a promotion in front of Mireau, who understands that taking the hill is virtually impossible. After some high-minded words about being unwilling to risk a single man’s life on an assault that wouldn’t come through, he agrees that his troops should be the ones to carry out the offensive.
In the 21st Century, the First World War is not much fodder for movies. World War II has spawned plenty, but with the possible exception of The Thin Red Line, there may not have been a good American WWII movie since Patton. Recent wars in the Middle East have struggled to make a more interesting movie than The Hurt Locker (and recently have lurched into a weird, Ostalgie-type of hero worship with films like Lone Survivor and American Sniper). The Civil War is too distant and baroque for most moviemakers and more audiences. The Vietnam War is where the anti-war sentiment comes in, and (not surprisingly) where most of the good movies land as well. World War I has been hard to talk about in movies; the last good WWI flick might be 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. Paths of Glory is, with all of that in mind, highly successful at displaying combat scenes and headquarters alike. The two could not be more different. Wide windows allow cool light into great rooms with rich furniture and high walls at headquarters; the front lines are cramped, either with low ceilings and little light, or with the great crush of men aligned on the front side of the trench where it’s safest from incoming shells. There is a war being fought by generals who are out of touch with the situation; even when Mireau comes to the front lines with his long coat and his crisp kepi, with a gallant scar across his face (which Kubrick always manages to keep in view), he is utterly unlike his men in dirty clothes wearing helmets. None of those men will get close enough to the enemy to get a scar so dashing as Mireau’s, presumably earned from a duel; most of those men will just get metal in their guts instead. Shelby Foote said that the bravest men in the Civil War were almost certainly the Union troops arrayed at Fredericksburg, who marched directly at the fortifications at Marye’s Heights, knowing, like everyone else in both armies not named “Ambrose Burnside,” that they would die and be no closer to taking the position. The Ant Hill is much the same; if the chance at a better command weren’t in front of Mireau, he would have absolutely rejected the assignment.
What’s apparent at the outset is that within Mireau’s ranks, there are brave men and there are men whose nerves have been completely shaken, who are afraid of death. (One soldier tells another, in a whisper, that it’s not death he fears so much as pain, and that most men would agree with him on that point.) Among the latter is Roget (Wayne Morris, ironically a highly decorated WWII vet who flew Hellcats for the Navy), a lieutenant who scouts out the enemy position with a pair of men beneath him in rank but far greater in courage. Roget panics while one of his men, Lejeune, is ahead doing recon. He tosses a grenade and gets out of dodge; the other man, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) goes to Lejeune’s position and finds that in his state of fear, Roget has killed Lejeune. The confrontation between Paris and Roget later on is fierce (with Paris getting in almost all the good blows), but ultimately ends when their commanding officer comes in to get the report. Roget falsifies it significantly, to Paris’ knowledge.
The attack on the Ant Hill, despite the best efforts of the leader of the 701st, Colonel Dax (Douglas), fails. Some of his men, to Mireau’s agitation, do not even leave the trenches; he tries to get French artillery to fire on those men, but is rebuffed because he does not supply written orders. The entire action is a total fiasco, a loss of life which comes to absolutely nothing. Dax and many of his men, like Paris and Arnaud (Joe Turkel) showcase great valor under fire, but the attack ends in vanity, just as it was conceived. The Ant Hill is still in German hands, and Mireau takes it badly. He wants men shot for cowardice. Despite Dax’s efforts to the contrary – Dax is a famous lawyer in civilian life – it comes down just that way. Paris, betrayed by Roget, is one of them. Arnaud is another. And a third, Ferol (Timothy Carey) boasts that he’ll get out of it somehow, but weeps his way to death. The scene itself is shot beautifully. The three posts for the men are, of course, just like the three crosses on Golgotha. Each of the three men come out differently; Arnaud, who knocked himself out cold trying to beat up a priest the night before, is taken out on a stretcher and only dimly roused to consciousness before he’s shot. Paris, who had a momentary breakdown in the room where he and his comrades were held, goes out bravely. Ferol cries the whole way out, accompanied by the priest, and whimpers through his death. All three of their reactions are understandable.
The film is not as nihilistic as World War I itself. It sees moments of individual strength and of comeuppance. Broulard, alerted by Dax to Mireau’s indiscretion during the attack (during a ball Broulard is giving, no less), offers Dax Mireau’s post, assuming that was what he was gunning for al along. It’s what he would have done after all. Broulard’s betrayal of decency is the most shocking moment of the film, coming when you think that you can’t be shocked any more. It’s somehow more alarming than Mireau’s command to fire on his own men in pique. If this was a Spielberg movie (and let’s not give him any ideas), doubtless Broulard would convince Dax to take the post for the sake of having decent men in command, or some other dreck; Kubrick’s movie, on the other hand, paints Broulard as a careerist with more sense than Mireau, someone who’s more offended that Dax isn’t playing the game correctly than he is that Dax is insulting him in any way he can come up with. The point is clear enough; even when you win, as Dax does, to some extent, you lose more. Get enough stars on your shoulders and you are completely inured from reality, completely unaccountable to the dead men in the trenches and on the field of execution.
What war movies teach us – at least what the good ones teach us, anyway – is that bravery is meaningless. Dax is brave; Paris is brave; Arnaud is brave. There are no rewards for bravery. The only certainty in war is that people have to die, and that bravery is just a front for flirting with death. It’s incomprehensible to the viewer that Roget should live when Paris has to die, or that Broulard should eat good food and wear fancy outfits without consequences for his callousness. We can’t imagine being them, but at least they’re alive. They are much more enviable than Paris, who has his heart in the right place and pays the price for having a soul. To borrow a phrase from Theoden, the virtuous die and the wicked linger. The path of glory is not one that any sane person would choose, and for that reason it’s hard to make heroes of the people who do just that.