Paths of Glory (1957)

by | Apr 28, 2024 | 1950s, Action, Film Reviews, War | 0 comments

Release date: 20 December 1957 (Los Angeles)
Genre: War/Action
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cinematographer: Georg Krause
Budget: $935,000 USD
Box office: $1.2 million USD


“Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.” – Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglas)


A Descent into the Trenches of War and Morality

Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory, throws viewers headfirst into the mud and misery of World War I. It’s not a comfortable watch, but it’s a necessary one. This unflinching portrayal of war exposes the horrific realities faced by soldiers and the callous disregard for human life that can fester within the ranks of command.


A Man of Principle in a Corrupt World

The story centres on Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a man of principle caught in a web of corruption and barbarity. Following a failed attack on a heavily fortified German position, General Mireau (Adolphe Menjou) demands a scapegoat. He arbitrarily selects three soldiers from the regiment under Dax’s command and accuses them of cowardice, sentencing them to be court-martialed for refusing to follow orders.

Dax, outraged by the injustice, becomes determined to defend the men. He delves into the events leading up to the attack, revealing the utter futility of the mission and the suicidal nature of the orders given. As he fights for the soldiers’ lives, he uncovers a truth far more unsettling – the generals are more concerned with saving face and maintaining discipline than with the lives of their men.


The Brutal Reality of War

Kubrick doesn’t shy away from portraying the brutality of war. The film’s stark black-and-white cinematography perfectly captures the desolation of the trenches and the grimness of battle. The constant presence of mud, rats, and the ever-looming threat of death hangs heavy over every scene. There are moments of action, but they are chaotic and terrifying, devoid of heroism or glory. The film doesn’t glorify war; it exposes it for the barbaric act it is.

One particularly harrowing scene depicts a failed charge across No Man’s Land. Soldiers are cut down in droves by machine gun fire, their bodies left to rot in the mud. The scene is relentless and unflinching, a brutal reminder of the true cost of war.


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Powerful Performances Drive the Narrative

The film’s true strength lies in its characters. Douglas delivers a powerful performance as Dax, a man determined to stand up for what’s right even in the face of overwhelming odds. His portrayal is nuanced and complex. Dax is a soldier, but he’s also a lawyer, a man who understands the importance of justice. He fights for the men not just out of duty, but out of a deep sense of humanity.

Menjou is equally effective as the self-serving General Mireau. His portrayal is chilling in its cold indifference. Mireau is a man driven by ambition and self-preservation, willing to sacrifice the lives of his own men to maintain his position. The contrast between Dax and Mireau embodies the central conflict of the film – the fight between compassion and self-interest, between humanity and blind obedience.

The performances of the three soldiers facing execution are also noteworthy. Private Paris (Ralph Meeker), the presumed leader of the supposed mutiny, is a complex figure. He’s hardened by war but possesses a spark of defiance. Corporal Rosenthal (Maurice Ernest Lévy) is a quiet and introspective man, weighed down by the horrors he’s witnessed. Private Arnaud (Timothy Carey) is a shell-shocked young soldier, barely clinging to sanity. Their performances are all the more powerful for their restraint, conveying the fear and desperation of men facing an unjust death.


A Scathing Indictment of the Class System

Paths of Glory isn’t just an anti-war film; it’s a scathing indictment of the class system that permeates the military. The film highlights the stark contrast between the officers, who live in relative comfort behind the lines, and the enlisted men, who face the horrors of the battlefield on a daily basis.

The generals are portrayed as out-of-touch elites who view the soldiers as expendable pawns. They hold lavish dinners and discuss strategy while the men they command suffer and die in the trenches. One particularly telling scene shows Mireau enjoying a fine meal while news of the failed attack and the subsequent court-martial arrives. The juxtaposition between the opulence of the generals’ quarters and the squalor of the trenches underscores the deep disconnect between the leadership and the men they command.


A Film That Makes You Think

The film isn’t without its flaws. The pacing can feel uneven at times, particularly in the middle section, where Dax gathers evidence for his defence. The ending, while powerful, might leave some viewers wanting more closure for the characters. However, these minor quibbles don’t detract from the overall impact of the film. Paths of Glory is a film that stays with you long after the credits roll.


My Rating: 8/10




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