Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Paths of Glory'


The term “anti-war movie” probably conjures certain images in your head. Many of the more well-known films in the category rely on visuals that present armed combat in grindingly realistic sequences: the often-cited D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, the sudden bursts of violence during the river voyage in Apocalypse Now, or just this year, the seemingly impossible plight of pacifist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) in Hacksaw Ridge. All of these movies use violence to hammer audiences with the bitter tragedies brought about by war.

But there’s another kind of anti-war movie, one that requires a bit more thought to get right (as well as some close reading by the audience). These movies use satire or drama to make their arguments against war, and often aim to expose the bureaucratic incompetence behind a failed strategy. One director especially drawn to the theme was Stanley Kubrick, who worked anti-war ideas into many of his movies, perhaps most obviously in Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. However, there’s an earlier film by Kubrick that sometimes feels like a testing ground for concepts he’d expand even further in his later work: 1957’s Paths of Glory.

George Macready is the cruel face of the inept French general staff as General Mireau.
George Macready is the cruel face of the inept French general staff as General Mireau.

Produced as a vehicle for star Kirk Douglas and his company Bryna Productions, Paths of Glory follows Colonel Dax (Douglas), an officer in the French army during the First World War. Ordered by his generals to take a well-fortified German position with no reinforcements, Dax does his best to lead the charge, but the attack collapses and the French suffer crushing losses. In a desperate attempt to scare some morale into the troops, General Mireau (a perfectly snide George Macready) demands that one man from each company be court martialed and executed for cowardice.

It falls to Colonel Dax to defend his men in court, despite the military leadership wanting to push past the incident and continue the fight. Even following a sudden reversal in fortunes (and maybe not the kind you’d expect), Dax is offered a promotion instead of an apology, further cementing the corrupted priorities of his army. But instead of closing on an angry note, Kubrick captures a heartbreaking moment that deserves to be mentioned alongside some of his best-known sequences.

Paths of Glory may be one of Kubrick’s earlier features, but it still possesses the confident storytelling and camera work that distinguished his work even when he started out as a staff photographer for Look magazine in the 1940s. Relatively early in the film (at least by 2016 standards) Kubrick stages a huge battle scene, which involved a number of operators running into the field with handheld cameras, covering the action from multiple angles at once – a staple of action filmmaking today. Yet Kubrick didn’t intend for the battle to be the scene that conveys his message – instead, that’s accomplished much later, during the trumped-up court martial and the darkly funny dialogue exchanges between Douglas, Macready and Adolphe Menjou (as Major General Broulard).

Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel as the soldiers being tried falsely for cowardice.
Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel as the soldiers being tried falsely for cowardice.

Douglas is clearly in full movie-star mode here, playing an almost improbably virtuous and clever officer with no flaws of his own. This shouldn’t diminish the passionate work he puts into Colonel Dax, but out of everything in the movie, it’s perhaps one of the few elements of Paths of Glory that doesn’t age as well as the cinematography or the boundary-pushing story (for 1957, mind you).

The other surprising detail about Paths of Glory by modern filmmaking standards is its length. At 88 minutes, it’s notably trim where many other films in the genre prefer to draw out the action. The film has a linear, no-nonsense screenplay, and doesn’t concern itself with any subplots – even the backgrounds of the three soldiers on trial are kept to a minimum. While it could be argued that the movie is narrowly focused to a fault, Paths of Glory still offers a lesson in restraint for modern filmmakers, who may feel that the scope of war can’t be portrayed without multiple lead characters and a three-hour runtime.

I finished Paths of Glory with the feeling that more people should see it, and more mention should be made of the film in Kubrick retrospectives at galleries and festivals. It may not have the kind of flashy images, edits or music cues that Kubrick burned into our brains with his later films, but Paths of Glory is just as effective – advice that can’t be repeated often enough in the industry, it would seem.

Paths of Glory gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

Have you seen Paths of Glory? If so, what did you think? Can current war films learn a thing or two from it? Or did Kubrick shy away from the real conflict?  Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!