Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Review by Jordan
What’s most apparent when watching any of Kubrick’s early works now is exactly how much his meticulous, perfectionist intent altered the flow and feel of his films post Dr. Strangelove. Paths of Glory, his 4th feature film as director (including the forsaken Fear and Desire) released in 1957, about the shameful, abhorrent trial of 3 soldiers on the grounds of cowardice in the heat of WWI and the brave and aggrieved Colonel who fights to save their lives, is made with grit, heart (though discipline also) and boasts an intelligently tight run-time; not exactly features it shares in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon or his other war drama Full Metal Jacket.
Driven by a powerful, steely-eyed performance by a suitably jaw-clenched Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory places an emotional hold on the viewer that masterfully tightens as the terrible story unfolds. Col. Dax’s heart-wrenching interactions with the villainous though all-too probable Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and his dastardly lapdog Gen. Paul Mireau, who for the sake of saving face and being granted a promotion orders artillery fire on his own men scrambling for the bunkers in the face of an impossible push, ignite a fire in the belly as only a strong acting presence and sure visionary can.
The cynical, idealistic Gen. Broulard states in an obvious manner when Dax protests the need for innocent men to be executed, that “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” It can be understood then, that at a later stage in the film the broken Colonel responds to an insulting request for an apology by stating in an exasperating manner: “I apologize… for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!”
Engaging, thrilling and at times thought-provoking and meditative (“See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive” laments the doomed Corporal Paris), Kubrick’s insight into the trials of war on a humane level stands tall and proud as one of his defining moments. His trademark tracking shots are evident here in arguably their best use yet, the camera trudging through the deathly canals of the dugouts and breaching the fray with a brigade of blood and dirt strewn soldiers in an unblinking fashion, and never again would he take a moral stance so passionately.
Then there’s the ending; a mesmerizing moment of reflection where a room full of rowdy American infantrymen lower their guard and hum along to the singing of a captured German girl made to perform for them (Kubrick’s future wife Christiane Harlan). The exact meaning of this scene is seemingly unknown to anyone, but what is known for sure is that it exists as the perfect culmination for a remarkable cinema experience.