Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
A week or so ago I delved deeper into the Stanley Kubrick catalogue with Lolita, and was further impressed by the style and touch of the director, though I don’t think the film in question was remarkably memorable. I also finally uncovered Kirk Douglas for the first time when I viewed Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. So now this time I am treated to a combination of the two, a film that won both of them praise, Paths of Glory. Without the names and reputation to hold the film up in my interests there stands the idea behind the film, which for a young man who studied History, is very intriguing and interesting.
Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) is the leader of a French infantry division positioned in the front lines during World War I in 1916. His division stands at the base of what is dubbed the “ant hill”, a strategic location which is held by the Germans. Dax’s generals, Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and Mireau (George Macready), give him the dubious task of leading a suicide charge through no man’s land and up the ant hill to take the position. It is a doomed mission from the start as they expect losses of over 50%. After the charge fails miserably, some of the men are chosen by lot to be persecuted for not fulfilling their mission. Dax, a former attorney before the war, defends the men who stand to be executed if convicted. His fight becomes one against the institution and what the fierce conditions of war stand for.
War films are a great genre. Well, I could pretty much say that of any genre because I just love movies, but war movies are interesting because they are usually pretty anti-war. Some more than others, but because war is the most gruesome condition man can find himself in in this world, it stands that its depiction on film would also be gruesome and condemning. But what sets Paths of Glory apart is two things: World War I and Stanley Kubrick. The First World War, or the Great War as it was called until World War II came around, was the first modern war in that it featured advanced weaponry and strategies on a large scale. The machine gun, mustard gas and trench warfare were major reasons why so many casualties came out of the war, and why it drug on for as long as it did. As such, it remains a great setting in which to tell the story Kubrick tells.
And Kubrick has the right idea about how to tell it. His camera does all the right things here, capturing the the gritty action and setting with all the visual flair and beauty that it deserves. There is nothing more telling than the ragged faces of the grunts in the trenches, whose helmets and uniforms are covered with just as much dirt and mud as their worn faces. But the way the trenches are juxtaposed to the French palaces is brilliant as well. Kubrick leaves the dark, claustrophobic trenches for the soldiers and the true heroes of the story while the lush French palaces are reserved for those higher-ups who sit back and send their men to their deaths and then have the gall to persecute and execute them for having common sense and trying to survive. The cinematography is brilliant and goes so well with the musical score and editing of the film too.
It is a quick film that doesn’t waste any time in getting to the point and it features some truly great scenes, but none greater than the initial charge made by the men on the ant hill. It is a scene that will stick with me for a while I think. And Kirk Douglas is a big reason why the film worked so well too, but honestly this is pure Kubrick in his ability to masterfully craft the perfectly paced war film that has plenty to say about war. I really am more interested in this time of film from Kubrick than some of his later films which sprawled in terms of runtime, Lolita included. It is nice to know that simple stories and short films can be just as great and powerful as the longer ones, and with something like this, maybe even more so. It is difficult to imagine that trench warfare actually existed with such death weapons as the machine gun.