Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is arguably the most distinguished and most powerful anti-war film to come out since Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film is set in 1916, during the time of the First World War, and focuses on French soldiers stationed at an army outpost. A French General named Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) summons his subordinate, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) to launch an attack on a fortified German position called the Anthill. Mireau seems to be unwilling to accept this impossible task at first and he cites the immense casualties that would result from this attack. Broulard attempts to manipulate him by offering him a promotion. Even though Mireau tells him that he places the lives of his men above his own ambitions, he is soon revealed to be a hypocrite, when he finally changes his mind.
Mireau conveys this order to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who is dismayed by it. Dax refuses to comply but when Mireau threatens to relieve him of his position, Dax is left with no other choice and obeys. The attack is soon initiated and as predicted earlier, it becomes an insurmountable task and several men are cut down by the heavy incoming gunfire. Many of the soldiers retreat and refuse to leave their trenches. Hearing this, an appalled Mireau orders his artillery to open fire on his own men. However, this order is disobeyed and this only enrages Mireau further. Mireau approaches Broulard and demands that three men from each company be subjected to court martial for acts of cowardice. Dax, who used to be a criminal defense lawyer in the past, decides to defend them in court. But he soon realizes that he is powerless and that his crusade will ultimately amount to nothing.
Kubrick has often been criticized for the lack of emotion in his films but Paths of Glory is that one film in his oeuvre that remains an exception. The viewer is as outraged by the events taking place as the film is. The film takes an anti-authoritarian stand and makes a scathing critique of anyone who seeks to crush individuality and use their own higher status in society for their own end. Several critics have pointed out that Kubrick’s thinking was much ahead of his time and that the film played a significant role in creating a major impact. Mireau and Broulard are some of the most despicable characters we have come across in cinema. Everything about them spells fraud and makes you sick with disgust. The superior officers manipulate each other and achieve their aim by trying to lure them with promotions whereas the superior officers manipulate the low-ranking officials by bullying them.
Towards the end, when Dax himself is offered a higher rank by Blourard, he feels utterly humiliated and nauseated at this thought and refuses to sell out. Dax is an idealist and is one of the most remarkable and memorable characters to have appeared on the silver screen. It should be noted that this film wouldn’t have been made possible without the support of Douglas. The film was very personal to him and it was on his insistence that Kubrick avoided giving the film a happy ending. His portrayal of Dax is one of his finest performances and I can’t imagine any other actor in the role. The film created a considerable amount of controversy in France and naturally, owing to pressure from army veterans, the French government prevented its release. It wasn’t until 1975 that the French audiences got to see the film in all its unadulterated glory.
The film is noted for its rich visual design and the striking cinematography.The high contrast black-and-white used is typically characteristic of film noir. The film is also one of the earlier examples to employ the “tracking shot” effectively. We notice a sharp contrast between the neat and elegant shots of the stunning interiors of the high-ranking officers’ residences and the harsh and naturalistic exterior shots of the battlefield and the soldiers’ bunkers. This contrast is even felt in the actors’ performances. Macready and Menjou along with a few other actors portraying the high-ranking officers display a theatrical and heavily exaggerated style of acting whereas Douglas and other actors like Ralph Meeker, Wayne Morris, and Timothy Carey deliver fittingly restrained performances. The emotional high point of the film comes at the end, in the form of a song sung by a German girl (played by Kubrick’s wife Christiane) at an inn, which moves all the soldiers present there into tears.