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Paths Of Glory

Paths Of Glory

By Max Lalanne • January 22nd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
United Artists

Original release: December 25th, 1957
Running time: 88 minutes

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, Humphrey Cobb
Composer: Gerald Fried

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready

Paths Of Glory

Paths Of Glory is described as being one of the “early” Kubricks, and indeed it is, but in many more aspects the film ranks among one of the director’s simplest, starkest, and very best works.

Right away it brings to mind the follyfilled outright satire of Dr. Strangelove but slyly shapes it in an altogether disturbing way to make one of the most effective antiwar movies ever committed to celluloid. It’s easier, so to speak, to put crazy characters together in a crazy plot and make a side-splitting caricature on humanity in general, but here in Paths Of Glory the absurdity abounding is expertly used to hard-hitting, sober, brutal, and not at all funny effect.

The intense WWI set story is as such. In the muddy, bloody confines of endless trench warfare on the Western front, the 701st Regiment of French foot soldiers are ordered to take the “Anthill,” a heavily defended German held fortification. The tired, hopeless men are led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who fully realizes that the mission is a suicidal and utterly nonsensical one that will cost the lives of hundreds of his men but, without any other options he follows the orders of the ambitious General Mireau (George MacReady), who, in turn, took them from the genial General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

Paths Of Glory

The attack is carried out at dawn and predictably fails; it turns out that heavy enemy fire and massive casualties contribute to an entire platoon remaining in their trenches, disobeying orders to advance and surely die in the mud and wire. Citing “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” there’s talk of putting a hundred men in front of a firing squad, but what’s finally decided is that three soldiers will be picked by their officers – all for various and nonsensical reasons, ultimately to serve as examples and to be executed the next morning. Also, as Broulard keeps saying with an cheery tone, it’s a big morale booster for the other soldiers to see men getting killed. Because they don’t have enough death, and talk and thought of it, in their lives already.

Dax is a good obedient soldier, but he’s also compassionate (at least to an extent) and knows this is all crazy. He tries to vouch for the three unlucky chosen (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel) at the court martial, but finds disgusting results, as it seems that nothing will stop the execution and the complete nonsense that’s running around uncurbed in front of his eyes. So what can he do? This is where Douglas – who, at some angles, resembles George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove – gives a massively underrated performance. You can positively feel the anger boiling under his calm, cool and collected exterior and when it finally breaks, it’s a furious moment but one that’s gone all too fast and forgotten even faster.

This is not a film with a happy ending, but as you might have heard already, in the very last famous scene Kubrick gives us one moment, one simple display of pure, breathtakingly simple human emotion that’s humbling to witness. It’s one that gives Paths Of Gloryus hope, after the startling onslaught of unexplained cruelty, and shows that Kubrick is not above being kind to his audience and, perhaps, forgiving to human nature.

I love the black and white cinematography by Georg Krause. The steadicam might have been invented during the shooting of The Shining, but here we see a long and steady backtracking camera shot preceding a grim-faced Dax as he strides through the trenches where explosions can be heard and seen around him, he then climbs up to start the attack. It’s especially marvellous to watch. Kubrick and Krause used their wide angle lenses, deep focus shots, and tightly composed framing to perfection in other scenes such as the hor­rid court martial, making it effectively claustrophobic.

On paper, Paths Of Glory really shouldn’t work. If not played for endlessly entertaining laughs, the notion of seeing men, completely void of normal emotion, kindness, or justice, act wholly preposterously to convey a forceful antiwar message should grow tiring and rather obvious. But it isn’t so here, and while acknowledgement must be paid to Kubrick’s already visible mastery of his craft, might the fundamental reason be that war itself is so absurd, it takes absurdity to truly unveil the horrors?

Paths Of Glory

Max Lalanne

Max Lalanne

Max Lalanne is an award-winning student filmmaker - whose debut short won a prestigious award at the Houston Intl. Film Festival when he was just 13. The bi-lingual film blogger and critic also has his own movie website, SmellofPopcorn.com.

He loves almost all kinds of cinema and watches a diverse array of movies on a regular basis, some of his favourites include Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings, Aliens, and Finding Nemo. You can follow Max on Twitter @maxlalanne.

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