Describing Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory certainly is no easy task for someone like myself. In a sense, it’s a film that shows an extremely disgusting picture of the war, especially considering the time in which it came out. Yet amongst all this disgust we witness, we also feel a sense of power in Kubrick’s image of humanity especially in his attacking of the nature of war and how it damages the soul. Paths of Glory is an achievement in humanistic ideals and truly one of, if not, the most powerful of anti-war films, with an ending that will go down as one of the most heartbreaking in all of film history.
Paths of Glory presents an extremely harsh attitude in regards to the war, and even with its age it still maintains its power. In spite of the low budget for the production, it’s impressive how Kubrick’s aim for realism creates given the bleak tone which is present throughout and the state of humanity in which it exposes. There are many war films even today that wish they could capture a similar uncomfortable feeling which Paths of Glory manages to form from its audiences when they’re watching the film and letting it take its effect upon them, for we witness the very worst of humanity especially at a time of war.
Although Kubrick’s unsympathetic exposée of the worst of humanity is primarily focused on how it damages the soldiers during the war, there’s a similar image we can see anywhere in regards to becoming placed amidst the higher rankings. For we know and recognizes cases in which an employer’s mistake suddenly becomes that of the employees, and with what we are given in Paths of Glory, it comes out from the generals putting the blame for their failures on their soldiers, by accusing them of cowardice. In this scenario, however, the social ranking issue becomes all the more horrifying for it also comes to the put the valuable lives of these people in jeopardy.
In spite of the background of the film being World War I, only the first half is primarily focused on the battlefield and the second half plays out more like a courtroom drama. Yet a specific power comes out from how Paths of Glory does not require an excessive display of violence taking place on the battlefield and it adds more to a colder atmosphere. This cold atmosphere helps more in mirroring the state of mind of these damaged soldiers, adding more to a sense of horror to be found within the cruelty we are witnessing from start to finish.
From viewing the performances, it adds more to the humanistic moral code that Kubrick creates for Paths of Glory. We have Kirk Douglas playing Colonel Dax, a vulnerable man who cares for the value of his soldier’s lives. He’s a man whom we can empathize with amidst all of this cruelty, for his sanity establishes him a reasonable being, the kind who knows right from wrong. From the supporting cast, George Macready’s antagonistic General Mireau works to contrast the ideals of Douglas’s Colonel Dax and shows what happens when so much power is given to the absolute worst in humanity.
Kubrick only slowly builds up the creepiness to the beauty of Paths of Glory as the film continues on. While we go ahead to witness true cruelty being displayed on the screen from start to finish, it’s not until the final moments where the worst ends up coming to their senses. It’s a beautiful moment because of how after succumbing to the very lowest points of our mentality, we realize that other lives are indeed just as important as ourselves, no matter what we may have perceived of them. All this violence only breeds much more, and in the final moments of Paths of Glory the realization we have forms what is easily the most heartbreaking sequence in any of Kubrick’s films.
For all the power that Paths of Glory brings onto the screen it’s rather saddening that it almost seems like a forgotten entry amidst the amazing body of work that Stanley Kubrick has left behind. The ideals that Kubrick has achieved in Paths of Glory grow to form what truly is one of his most powerful films and also one of the most humane pictures ever to have been made. While it may be focused primarily on what happens during WWI the power can still hit audiences nowadays for how the scenario in regards to abuse of ranking can apply anywhere, but it’s within here where it creates the most devastating of results. An anti-war film for the ages, arguably the finest of the sort, it truly is something that cannot be topped.
A faithful soldier, without fear,
He loved his girl for one whole year,
For one whole year and longer yet,
His love for her, he’d ne’er forget.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, from the novel by Humphrey Cobb
Produced by James B. Harris
Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson
Release Year: 1957
Running Time: 88 minutes