Paths of Glory is a great war film. It’s also an unconventional war film. There’s little combat, little heroism.
It is a war film about bureaucracy. About waiting. About the distance between isolated elites and the foot soldiers facing the violence of combat and the insane retribution of a soulless system.
Kirk Douglas plays Dax, a French colonel tasked with commanding a suicidal charge into German territory. The attack is a disaster, and Dax’s commander, General Mireau, shifts the blame to the soldiers beneath him, randomly court marshaling three infantrymen for cowardice.
Dax defends them in court, but the trial is a farce, of course, and the court sentences the men to execution by firing squad. Kubrick saves his most affecting and brutal filmmaking for the film’s final scenes.
What’s interesting is that Paths of Glory, still one of Kubrick’s earlier films, should serve so well as a kind of trump card for criticism leveled at the director later in his career. While he is often accused of distance, this movie is bracingly intimate. Where he is seen as atheistic, this film has an undeniably religious allegorical weight.
It’s interesting to watch this in two contexts: that of Kubrick’s larger body of work with the MFA retrospective (February 5 & 6) and at the Harvard Film Archive, against other cinematic depictions of WWI (February 21).
Paths of Glory
dir. Stanley Kubrick
Part of series: The Films of Stanley Kubrick