Paths of Glory is not the movie I thought it would be. From the posters it seemed like it would be a straight up war film, albeit a straight up war film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which would likely be something special. And the first third is a standard war film. It’s all trenches and explosions, this being WWI. Kubrick gives us the set-up: Kirk Douglas is told that he must take a German stronghold. He tells his superior officer, played by George Macready as an evil and power hungry man looking for his next star, that his forces are not big enough nor will they have enough support to accomplish their goal. This, of course, doesn’t matter and although Douglas tries his damnedest to take the hill he barely makes it halfway through no-mans-land and a third of his forces won’t even dare to leave the trenches. This sequence is just as intense as the opening section of Saving Private Ryan, though it is shot completely differently. Where Spielberg’s movie is all shaky cam and tinnitus, Paths of Glory scrolls along, not shying away from the terror, but giving a continuous forward push. Is the camera following the soldiers or are they following it? It’s amazing, actually, in such an action packed frame that we can pick out Douglas as he blows his whistle and climbs over dead bodies and artillery holes. At one point the camera zooms in to spot him and his glorious chin only to zoom back out and show how crazy this attack is. It is grimy to the extreme, at the same time as it is emblematic of Kubrick’s complete control over his films.
After the failed maneuver, the evil General must cover his tracks. He sets up a court marshal in his ridiculously opulent base, a mansion with room sized paintings and marble floors. One soldier from each of the three sections of the troop will be tried for cowardice and shot if found guilty. Luckily, Douglas also happens to be the best lawyer in France, and he jumps to defend his men from the silly trial. To go any further into the film’s plot would do a disservice to it. It is a Kubrick film and as such isn’t exactly a rip-roaring good time. He films his characters with the standard detachment, though he allows them to be real people. You can sense the Douglas is pained and wants to do right by his men, not only from what he says but from how he acts. It’s him against the world, Germans and French alike. The film is as much about the failings of military thinking as it is about the French vs. the Germans. Douglas rages against the machine but to little avail. It is only the final scene that changes how he views the world. It’s a marvelous scene, at first terrifying, then strangely comforting.
As the second film in my 1957 marathon, Paths of Glory continues the year’s excellence. Along with Throne of Blood, it shows that filmmaking was just as vibrant then as it is now. There’re plenty of explosions and gunfire and later plenty of explosive dialogue and fiery speeches. It is at least as good as that other courtroom drama from the same year, 12 Angry Men. And you can imagine the entirety of War Horse happening alongside it! Both films rely on American and British actors playing foreign characters. Where are the cries of crass commercialism for Kubrick’s film? Lost in the fog of war, I guess.