Paths of Glory (1957)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

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Paths of Glory is a war film which turns into a courtroom drama.  Equal time is spent on the battlefield, in the general’s lavish quarters and in a fanciful, Palace of Versailles-esque court.  The story is intimate, concerning the fates of three individual soldiers, but the scope is also much wider, following the motivations and actions of men within four different levels of the military hierarchy.

We start in the chateau of General Georges Broulard of the French army.  The French and German armies are at a standoff in World War I, only making slight geographical progress but which costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.  The General asks his secondary officer, General Mireau, to send his men on a suicide mission to take the “anthill,” a fortified German position.  Mireau explains that this would be extremely deadly and that he values the life of even a single soldier over his own medals.  But then, with promises of a promotion, Mireau eagerly jumps onboard.

We next see Mireau looking out of place as he strolls through the trenches on the front lines.  His posh wardrobe stands out from the dirty, rotting uniforms of the soldiers who have weathered the fighting thus far.  Mireau is oblivious or purposefully ignorant of their plight.  When he stops to greet them, he wants to hear nothing but positivity.  When he approaches a man who is shell shocked, he slaps him and orders him thrown out of the regiment.

Mireau then approaches the film’s hero, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to tell him of the plan of attack.  Dax is mortified by Mireau’s instructions, realizing that this would likely cost the lives of over half his men.  Dax challenges Mireau but ultimately relents.  What follows is a long shot of the men pouring over the bumpy landscape while bombs explode around them.  They don’t even look human the way they move, instead like they’re one step above dirt.  They run into certain death, and the point is clearly made that their lives have little value to the men who run the war.  Dax, however, leads the charge.  Even if he disagrees with the command, he demonstrates a selflessness and courage, albeit also a misguided loyalty.

The attack doesn’t go as planned, as we expected, and Mireau, watching from afar, goes berzerk.  He orders an attack on his own men in order to persuade them to go further into battle.  Many of the men have remained in the trench, pinned down by gunfire, and many others retreat.  Mireau’s order is refused, and he demonstrates a certain amount of petulance we hope people in that position don’t possess.

After the failed attack, Dax and Mireau meet with General Broulard.  Mireau demands an answer, labelling the failure on cowardice.  Dax volunteers to take the punishment since these are his men, but Broulard laughs it off.  They settle on a compromise, with one man chosen at random from each regiment and then charged for cowardice.  Their fate will serve as warning for other would be ‘cowards.’

A brief courtroom drama ensues in which Dax does his best to defend the three scapegoats.  Dax protests the charges and the suicide mission to begin with, but none of it matters.  They are charged with cowardice and sentenced to death.  There is some dark humor in here when, while in captivity, two of them get into a fight and one is knocked out cold with a skull fracture.  When they are later stood up straight and tied to a pole, the unconscious man is limply restrained to a gurney and then pinched on the cheek right before the execution because he needs to be awake when it happens.

One of the other scapegoats is a Josh Brolin look-a-like named Corporal Paris who tells Dax that he was only chosen by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Roget, because he had previously challenged him for drunkenness and the wanton killing of another officer while on a reconnaissance mission.  The Lieutenant is one of the most despicable characters in the movie, and his decision to pick Paris for certain death is another act of cowardice or at least of revenge.

Dax can do little with this information, but when he discovers that Mireau had ordered an attack on his own men, he tries to leverage this into blackmail, hoping it will free the men after their conviction.  It’s that familiar ‘new information’ moment that might normally save these characters, and it precedes a long, drawn out sequence in which the men are marched to their deaths.  We keep waiting for something positive to intervene, but it never does.  The men are quickly shot down once lined up, and all Paris gets is a weak “I’m sorry” from the Lieutenant whom Dax has ordered to carry out the execution, as punishment for his gripe with Paris.

So there is no happy ending, but there is some comeuppance.  Dax had brought the information about Mireau’s poor ethics to Broulard, and though this didn’t save the men, Broulard does bring it to Mireau’s attention, indicating that Mireau will have to face the council and answer for his behavior in much the same way as the three doomed soldiers.  Mireau is furious, and it is pleasing to watch him squirm.  Still, he receives what he deserves from another character who despite his politeness is just as disturbing.  Mireau calmly, smugly turns to Dax and informs him that Mireau’s position is now his.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”  He asks, and Dax loses his temper, clarifying that this was in no way his goal.  The General can’t believe that Dax is such an idealist, wanting to save his men over himself, and Dax is appropriately disturbed that the General would believe this.  Like with the earlier scene in which Dax relented to Mireau’s foolish command, he leaves the meeting heated but still following orders.

The film ends on a reflective note as Dax looks in on many of his men crammed into a small bar, rowdy and delirious.  They cheer menacingly and desperately as a German woman (who would later marry the director Stanley Kubrick) is paraded on stage, tears streaming down her face, to sing a German song we can hardly hear over those masculine cheers and jeers.  We cut back and forth between shots of the scene inside and Dax outside looking in.  He never offers any clue as to what he’s feeling, and with him being the audience surrogate to some extent, this allows an opportunity for us to project our own feelings onto his.  Is he angry?  Is he frustrated with the rowdiness and lack of apparent cooperation among his men?  Maybe he respects it consdiering his own loyalty to the military has eaten away at his soul.

After a minute or two the men start to calm down as the woman sings.  They begin to hum along to the tune they surely don’t know the words to.  The woman onstage seems to gain more courage as she notices their empathy and unified humming, and like before, Dax remains stoic.  It’s a melancholic, earnest note to end on.  A few of the men start to cry as the camera cuts to progressively tighter and tighter shots.  They all know what they’ve been through, and they all know their chances of survival remain dim.

Letting Dax stand outside to inspect the scene offers a certain poignancy.  It allows us to watch ourselves watching this madness, not just in this moment but in the movie as a whole.  By watching Dax we are watching ourselves.  We are at once meant to feel what he feels but also to inspect, even study that observation.  This scene acts as an epilogue, unrelated to the plot, but thematically it works to really underscore the insanity of what we’ve just seen and to know that many of the characters feel it too.

An officer arrives to tell Dax that they need to ship out, but Dax asks if he can give his men just a few more minutes reprieve before they go.  He knows what lies ahead.

Paths of Glory is a magnificent film.  It really tugs at the heartstrings and appeals to your sense of injustice.  Kirk Douglas plays a great hero, and the characters of Mireau, Broulard, and Roget are great villains.  They demand your hatred just as Douglas demands your admiration, not necessarily because he’s so admirable but because he does what we might do in such a situation.  Douglas is an empathetic figure because he understands right from wrong, but he also must deal with the his sense of duty, which compels him to run into battle as part of a plan he knows is doomed to fail.

The Douglas character remains stuck in that line of duty.  He follows orders but refuses a promotion.  He knows nothing good is coming, but he remains a loyal officer even though he sees what lies above him.  The men who run the war, all the way up to the politicians, are corrupt.  He doesn’t want to be them, and so his honor as a soldier comes from something else other than personal ambition.

Among the villains, Lieutenant Roget is the easiest to forgive, even though he doesn’t deserve any forgiveness.  He’s a coward whose fear leads him to toss a grenade which kills his own man.  He’s a drunk who threatens his subordinate and then carries out that threat by serving him up to supposed military justice.  His only redeeming factor is the recognition of his own guilt and the weak “sorry” he offers to Paris just before he’s killed.

Mireau and Broulard are more sociopathic.  They show no remorse for their actions.  While Roget acted out of fear and self-preservation, an at least somewhat understandable motivation, the other two military leaders are motivated by a sense of deranged pride and self-righteousness.  Mireau is a hypocrite who claims to enjoy being on the front lines but whose life has become cushy behind whatever desk it is he sits at.  He has a large scar across his cheek which suggests former glory and heroism in the line of duty, but as he has ridden that to a high rank, his prosecution claims that a history of heroism is unimportant when it comes to the three men on trial.  The prosecution’s argument invalidates any reason Mireau should be respected.

God, he’s just awful.  And Broulard is probably worse because he sees Mireau’s personal drive and uses that to push him into the attack on the anthill.  Broulard knows it’s a horrible battle plan, so when it fails he hardly bats an eye.  For a man leading the war, Broulard is remarkably comfortable.  He only carries out orders given to him by politicians who want something to happen, and Broulard is happy running the hamster wheel as long as he gets to remain in his position of power.

There are several moments in the film in which someone laughs to themselves and is called out on it.  Mireau smiles when Broulard first tells him to attack the anthill, recognizing that it is insane, and then Dax does the same thing when Mireau relays the plan to him.  Both men acknowledge the lunacy of the plan and go with it anyways.

The idea is that this is all insane, and the characters at the top come across as almost comic archetypes.  Are they satiric versions military leaders or the same thing?  They are impossible to deal with, that’s for sure, and because of this the entire plot of the movie can be summed up in the narration given to us at the start of the film:

“War began between Germany and France on August 3rd 1914. Five weeks later the German army had smashed its way to within eighteen miles of Paris. There the battered French miraculously rallied their forces at the Marne River and in a series of unexpected counterattacks drove the Germans back. The front was stabilized then shortly afterwards developed into a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches zigzagging their way five hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. By 1916, after two grisly years of trench warfare, the battle lines had changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards, and paid for in lives, by hundreds of thousands.

Up Next: The Boxer (1997), The Mirror (1975), THX 1138 (1971)

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