"Paths of Glory" **** (out of ****)
The absurdity of war is front and center towards the "Paths Of Glory" (1957).
Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" shares the anti-war sentiments of early Hollywood films like King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925) and the Academy Award winner "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930) however the movie goes beyond that. At times it feels like a surreal, Kafkaesque commentary on the inefficiency of bureaucracy. And a damnation of mankind forever turning the wheels of a corrupt system.
"Paths of Glory" isn't a "war movie" in the sense audiences associate the genre with. There is a battle scene, talks of war strategy and army officials but the film ends with a court martial sequence, which takes up a significant portion of the movie and where the film makes its strongest moral statement. In this sense it resembles the courtroom drama "12 Angry Men" (1957). Ironically both films were released in the same year and both movies feature a sole man standing up defending the rights of someone about to die and make a harsh comment about justice.
Some could make the argument "Paths of Glory" is not just an anti-war but also an anti-military film. The military is presented as a corrupt system. System compiled of individuals hungry for power, motivated by greed and comprised of a faux sense of honor and patriotism. That same faux patriotism that has always been held by politicians could have lead some to even call this wonderful, emotionally stirring masterpiece "un-American". Then again the movie is about the French army and as such it was not shown in France until 1975!
Film critics (sheep) and film historians routinely consider "Paths of Glory", Mr. Kubrick's third feature-length film (fourth if we include "Fear and Desire" (1953) which Mr. Kubrick disowned) to be his first masterpiece, the movie which established him as an artist, a great filmmaker. I disagree. Mr. Kubrick showed his brilliance in his film prior to this one, one of the all-time great heist movies, "The Killing" (1956). Either way the genius of Mr. Kubrick was recognized early in his career.
The movie, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, takes place during World War 1, 1916. The French and the Germans are engaged in trench warfare. They have been stuck in their positions for two years. Advancement needs to be made. French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) informs his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) he must give the order to advance the 701 regiment to a guarded German position known as "Anthill". Both acknowledge it is a suicide mission, where roughly 55% of the regiment will be killed but there might be a decoration in it for Gen. Mireau, a third star! The good general pretends, for a brief while, to act like he cares about the safety of his men but eventually creates his own rational justification for the order and declares it just might be accomplished.
Now all they must do is notify Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) that he must plan to send his regiment on this mission the next day. Col. Dax tries to protest, stating the obvious, it is a suicide mission. Even if they succeed, with the loss of men expected, there will not be enough left to hold the position.
The regiment fails to make the advancement, some men don't even leave the trenches. The consistent air attacks by the Germans is just too much for the men to overcome. Gen. Mireau meanwhile witnesses what happens and in his disgust orders that his own French soldiers be fired at, in order to make them head out on the battlefield.
After the mission is a failure, Gen. Mireau must save face. Both he and Gen Broulard decide to court martial the men for cowardice. It is agreed three men will be chosen, one from each company, with Col. Dax acting as their legal defense, as he was a lawyer prior to the war.
It becomes immediately obvious the trial is a charade and the court has already made up their mind to convict the three men randomly chosen, suggesting the men are guilty before convicted. Much like our own legal system where the court of public opinion will condemn people without knowing all the evidence. It also shows us how in the military the higher up officers use soldiers as scapegoats to hide their own ignorance within a system based on a faux hierarchy of power.
This is further displayed in a sequence involving a lieutenant (Wayne Morris), who during a night watch is overcome with his own cowardice and lobs a grenade, which ends up killing one of his own soldiers, and runs off. Because he is an officer there is no court martial.
What makes "Paths of Glory" so involving is the anger you may feel as you see all of this corruption and no one, but the powerless, are accused. You become angry at the system. Even in a "respectable institution" like the military, greed and mad ambition rule the day. In the original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, he considered this one of the movie's flaws and wrote "you are left with the feeling that you have been witness to nothing more that an horribly freakish incident." But that is the point. That is what makes the movie so powerful to this day. The fact that all of this is allowed to happen. You can't give a movie like this a happy ending. It must play out to its natural tragic conclusion. Anything else would be a cop out and ruin everything that had been established. What would the moral be?
Shamefully "Paths of Glory" did not receive a single Academy Award nomination. Surely nominations for best picture, Mr. Kubrick's directing and Mr. Douglas' performance were worthy. Mr. Douglas' performance in particular is the heart and soul of the movie as Mr. Douglas is the movie's moral compass.
"Paths of Glory" may not have been a movie audiences would expect from a young Stanley Kubrick in the 1950s but the movie has something in common with Mr. Kubrick's later films such as "Spartacus" (1960) with its moral message, which also starred Kirk Douglas and naturally "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) with its anti-war message. However Mr. Kubrick's early movies do not share much else with his later films other than they all nearly all masterpieces.
I'm not sure when one should see this in relation to Mr. Kubrick's other films. All I know is it needs to be seen.