‘Paths Of Glory’ - Stanley Kubrick's Anti-War Masterpiece
--The 405 November 26, 2017
“There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now". -Kirk Douglas on 'Paths of Glory', 1969.
Sixty years on, the title Paths of Glory remains as ironic as the first day this film was shown to an audience. There's no glory to be had in the 88 minute run time of Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece. It's a film that picks the audience up, spins them through a moral battlefield and then kicks them out the other side.
Kubrick was beginning to make a name for himself in the mid 1950's. His first masterpiece, 1956’s The Killing – a gritty noir crime film starring Sterling Hayden and inspired countless pretenders (Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs being one that references it) had brought him to the attention of Hollywood, despite its relative failure at the box-office.
Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris were set up at MGM and given a pile of scripts to sift through and find something they might want to shoot. They couldn't find anything, but Kubrick remembered a novel by Humphrey Cobb titled “Paths of Glory” that he had liked and he wanted to make into a war movie.
Kubrick hired Calder Willingham (Later famous for The Graduate) to write the screenplay, though the final credit would go to Kubrick himself, Willingham and the crime writer Jim Thompson, famous for his hard-boiled novels. Nobody at MGM had much faith in the commercial potential of the film and it eventually ended up being financed by United Artists.
The film starred Kirk Douglas, who himself had voiced concern over the commercial potential of the picture but, in his own words, “had to make it”. Indeed, Douglas's production company Bryna helped produce the film alongside Harris.
The film has a dark tone almost from the very start. In 1916, at the height of the WWI, a discussion is held between two high-ranking Generals in the French Army: George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and Paul Mireau (George Macready) about advancing on an Anthill – a key position that the Germans have managed to hold onto. Mireau is hesitant to begin with until he learns that if he accepts the offer, promotion is his – regardless of the result of the attack. Mireau knows that casualties will be large but sees the chance to advance his career prospects – the “Paths of Glory” title could be said to refer to this. Mireau passes the information onto the commanding officer in the trenches Colonel Dax (Douglas), who voices his concerns on how suicidal the mission sounds.
The attack inevitably fails and – on accusations of treason – three of Dax's men are forced to stand trial (portrayed by Kiss Me Deadly’s Ralph Meeker, the always interesting to watch Timothy Carey, and The Shining’s bartender, Joe Turkel) -A token amount that is suggested by Broulard. Dax himself decides to represent them in court.
What follows from there onwards is a stunning account of the follies of war and the power-grabs at the heart of the military. One that still shocks and surprises new viewers today.
The reasons for this are myriad. The stunning black and white photography is haunting and features some of Kubrick’s early attempts at his now infamous tracking shots. One particular camera move down the trenches has real significant emotional impact later on, revealing to the audience the human side of the self-centred decision that causes the soldiers to be there. The battle is beautifully shot too, showing the futile nature of attacking the position from Dax’s point of view.
When the action moves into the makeshift court room, Kubrick deliberately emphasises the distance between the soldiers and the generals via his framing. Lots of wide angle photography highlights the chasm of morality and it's clear, even more so than The Killing, that Kubrick's earlier eye for still photography has translated into cinema in an astonishing manner.
The acting is excellent too. Douglas, all clenched jaw and glaring eyes is brilliant as Dax, the moral centre of the film. When late in the film he is forced into pointing out a mistake by one of his superior officers, it's worth stating that his acting choices are emphasised by what he doesn't do or doesn't say. He's terrific here, in one of his favourite roles. McCready has most of the fun as the horrendous Mireau, a role of a cowardly superior in it all for himself and Menjou plays Broulard as an affable head teacher, quick to pass the responsibility down as long as he personally isn't implicated.
The power of the film resonates today but at the time it stood out on its own. The First World War and the decision making process behind its military operations hadn't been openly questioned in such an uncompromising manner before. Indeed, the film was banned in France – because of its obviously unflattering portrayal of the French army being regarded as an anti-French statement – for many years. The box office results were as disappointing as many feared, with the film just about breaking even on its $1 million budget, but the initial reviews were strong and United Artists were delighted.
For one person though, the film would have a personal life-long impact on their private life. That was its director, Stanley Kubrick. The film's final sequence had an emotional moment where a group of the French soldiers sit in a bar and await a show. A young singer, portrayed by Susanne Christian, as she was credited, performed a track that soon silences the room from its bawdy atmosphere and has grown men crying. It's a rare moment of emotional release in a film that's all about understatement and one of the most humane sequences Kubrick ever shot. Susanne Christian would fall in love with her director and go on to be his second wife, separated only by Kubrick's own passing in 1999.
Indeed, for her and for cinematic history, Paths of Glory leaves quite a legacy.