Legendary French director François Truffaut famously said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because film inherently glamorizes everything it depicts. That quote is hard to reconcile, however, with the evidence of Stanley Kubrick’s first truly great movie. Of course, it’s possible that Truffaut never had the chance to see Paths of Glory until after he uttered those words, as the French government banned the film until 1975. It is truly ironic that the nation that gave birth to New Wave cinema could take such an iron-fisted approach to films showing its government in a bad light, even forty years after the fact.
Based on a 1935 novel that was itself loosely based on an actual incident in World War I, Paths of Glory depicts the political aftermath of an ill-advised, politically motivated attack on a nearly impregnable German position known as the “Ant Hill.” Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) finds himself defending three soldiers picked at random as scapegoats to help their generals cover their own asses after the attack fails miserably with many casualties.
General Mireau (George Macready), Dax’s antagonist, is somewhat of a tragic figure in this story. He begins the film as a sympathetic character, arguing strenuously against the suicidal attack. When the possibility of promotion is dangled in front of him, however, he finds it easy to rationalize the slaughter of his own men, just seconds after telling General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) that those same men mattered to him more than anything, even his own reputation. For his part, Broulard is the real devil at the heart of the story, always smiling and ingratiating, but also manipulating circumstances so he cannot be touched by the consequences of the disaster, then convincing himself it is for the good of France.
Of course, the really tragic figures are the three soldiers selected to be court-martialed for cowardice. They are effectively victims of their fate from the very start. Unable to refuse the order to attack, their own survival is used as evidence of their supposed cowardice. Their innocence is beside the point, since they have been selected to die for the sins of others. Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), a courageous veteran, was selected complete at random while Ferol (Timothy Carey) was singled out for being a “social undesirable.” Paris (Ralph Meeker) is picked because he was a witness to his company commander’s cowardice the night before the attack. The film’s point is obvious but true. The common foot soldiers are doomed to be victims of the machinations of others.
The final tragic figure is Col. Dax himself. A lawyer in civilian life, he’s an idealist who actually believes he can defend these men against the charges but is soon steamrolled by the mind-boggling cynicism of the proceedings. The story is mostly told through the process of his disillusionment.
Stylistically, Kubrick had already discovered his love for long, deep focus master shots. He uses them to great effect, diminishing his characters against the vast, opulent but impersonal spaces of the French headquarters. The combat sequences during the doomed attack, while unable to be graphically bloody, very effectively convey a real sense of chaos and hopelessness.
Kubrick made the claim that Paths of Glory is not an anti-war film and I can somewhat see his point. The film seems to argue that this sort of manipulation by the powerful against the powerless, which happens in both war and peace, is doubly unjust in wartime because lives can be destroyed by the thousands. The film makes a powerful argument about the dangers of letting generals behave like politicians.