Boots on the Ground: ?Paths of Glory?

To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:

Paths of Glory (1957)

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.

Just as the first World War remains a forgotten period to many Americans and their history books, Paths of Glory remains a forgotten masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick. Released the same year as The Bridge on the River Kwai, its angle on World War I from the viewpoint of a trial and showing very little in the way of actual battle makes it a much quieter depiction of war than that of David Lean’s grandness. Both are considered classics, and, despite popular appeal, both are anti-war, but the scales of remembrance are tilted slightly towards Kwai by way of a budget three times the size as Paths of Glory and the resounding battle scenes that remain the former film’s eminence.

Despite its place alongside other war films in the history of the medium, Paths of Glory is a work of art, an emotionally engaging and thought-provoking piece on the men who go to war and the atrocities they find there even from their own side of the barbed wire fence. It was a film long ahead of its time showing the brutality of war and doing everything but glamorizing it.

Based on the 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, a novel Kubrick read as a child, Paths of Glory centers on a regiment of French soldiers.  After being ordered by their superior, General Mireau, played by George Macready, to charge towards a fortified, German bunker, some of the men refuse. They know it is a suicide mission, and they would rather be branded as cowards than race headfirst into a barrage of oncoming bullets. After the charge, which is nothing short of a nightmare and a failure for everyone involved, Mireau orders three men to face the charges for the whole brigade. The charge is cowardice, and the punishment for such a crime is the firing squad. Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, takes it upon himself to represent the men in the military court.

Based loosely on true World War I events, Paths of Glory is certainly a war film, but it is so much more than that. It is a character study on those who fight wars and how far some of them can be pushed before they will stand up for themselves and say “enough.” Kubrick, always a master story-teller, though most of his feature films are based on other works, wrote the screenplay along with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson. The care and time their script gives to each of the men in the regime, particularly Dax and the three men standing trial, is undeniable. This is even more amazing considering the film’s brisk, 90-minute running time, a rarity for Kubrick. Regardless of the running time, the film is paced beautifully, and each character is allowed time to develop. These are anything but cookie cutter soldier types running along the trenches, and the power of the events that transpire hits so much harder.

Those trenches, by the way, as well as the courtroom, are shot with masterful uses of black and white. Kubrick, someone who never shied away from using black and white film, brought on Georg Krause as the film’s cinematographer. With over 100, German films under his belt before shooting Paths of Glory, Krause’s experience behind the camera is on hand in ever shot of this film. The starkness between the blacks and the whites and the composition in every shot from beginning to end are beautifully crafted, and it’s a wonder Kubrick and Krause never worked together again. Were Paths of Glory shot today, the moments inside the trenches would surely be shot hand-held with as much shake and jerk as a director/cinematographer collaboration could give without being likened to Greengrass. Hell, they may not even mind the comparison. But the smooth, dolly shots Kubrick and Krause give us through these trenches hover the shot on the men and their actions at hand, almost as if we are dreaming this hellish world. We are observing this nightmare from the outside in, and our hands are tied as all we can do is sit and watch the events take place.

The men playing the soldiers on trial are all, equally commendable in the performances they give. Joe Turkel, who would go on to play the bartender in Kubrick’s The Shining 23 years after Paths of Glory; Ralph Meeker, who shares a captivating and heart-wrenching scene with a cockroach; and Timothy Carey, stunning in the defeatist attitude he fixes onto his character are all admirable. Any one of them could have stolen the show here, but there is no denying the obvious. This is Douglas’s film, and the legendary actor leads the cast in commanding fashion. You believe this man’s values and the moral code that drives him in defending the three men, but Dax is not without his own moments of melancholy. This, too, is a man at war, and he finds himself defending against the actions of his own side during that time of war. The Colonel Dax Kirk Douglas brings to life is both powerful and sad, engaging and symbolic. Douglas’ performance here is nothing short of riveting.

Character driven but utterly compelling in the story it tells, Paths of Glory, both from its story and its breathtaking execution, is a work of art, a masterpiece from a director who is known throughout the film making world for his craft and the way he seemed to create cinematic art without effort. When looking back at Stanley Kubrick’s legacy, there are so many films that immediately jump to people’s minds. Films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and 2001 game Kubrick the title of master he so truly deserves. Even other war films he directed, films like Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, get more attention than Paths of Glory. Nonetheless, while those films also deal with character during the time of war, this earlier work does no less for the viewpoint that war is hell and the battles within oneself are often more involving and hard to watch than those that take place on the bloodied fields. It’s about morality, about the identity one loses when they are thrust into actions they don’t believe in. Paths of Glory sends an all-encompassing and powerful message, a message that is far more poignant when told on the faces of the men who saw the war rather than the spectacle of the war itself.

Soldier on and read more Boots On the Ground.

Jeremy's been writing about movies for a good, 15 years, starting with the film review column of his high school newspaper. He stands proud as the first person in his high school to have seen (and recommend) Pulp Fiction. Jeremy went on to get a B.A. in Cinema and Photography with a minor in journalism. His experience and knowledge of film is aided by the list of 6600 films he has seen in his life (so far). Jeremy's belief is that there are no bad films, just unrealized possibilities. Except Batman and Robin. That shit was awful.

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