Stanley Kubrick’s first truly great film.
The Film: When an overwhelmed French regiment refuses to advance during a suicidal attack, three soldiers are randomly selected to be shot as examples. Their commanding officer, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), defends them in court to no success. As the execution date draws closer, Dax discovers that one of the men was witness to a drunk lieutenant’s cowardly murder, and that the man’s selection was less random than it seemed. Dax brings this evidence to light, but it doesn’t stop the execution. The men are shot, and Dax receives orders to return to the front.
The Production: Kubrick’s The Killing found modest success in 1956 and opened a few doors, but the film wasn’t enough to establish Kubrick as a money director. Eager to maintain momentum, Kubrick and his producer James Harris looked to adapt a powerful, but challenging war novel written in 1935 by WWI soldier Humphrey Cobb. The novel, Paths of Glory, had been a success at release, but a stage adaptation flopped and film studios, already twitchy about downer endings, labeled the novel as unfilmable.
“OK, fine, they die. But then maybe everybody gets candy?”
Kubrick and Harris worked with screenwriters Calder Willingham (The Graduate) and Jim Thompson (The Killing) to fashion a script strong enough to draw a major Hollywood star. That star ended up being Kirk Douglas, who famously predicted that the movie would never make a profit, but that he had to do it anyway. He was right. Paths of Glory was a box office failure, but it became an instant classic, immediately acknowledged as a major artistic success.
The project was key for Kubrick. Paths of Glory convinced Douglas to hire Kubrick for his career-making megaproject, Spartacus. Kubrick also met a lovely actress named Susanne Christian and cast her to play the film’s sole female role. Kubrick would marry Christian the following year and they remained married until his death in 1999.
“You’re welcome, Stanny.”
Best Moment: The showcase scene in Paths of Glory also happens to be its last. By the end of the movie, Dax’s soldiers have survived a brutal, suicidal assault, only to watch as their leaders execute three of their unit on trumped up charges. On edge, the soldiers gather in a bar for a few fleeting moments of relaxation. Their entertainment comes at the expense of a German peasant girl (Susanne Christian), “liberated” in combat and dragged onstage to perform for her captors. The men jeer and holler while the emcee makes lewd comments. This seems like it could go very south, very soon. Instead, something unexpected happens.
The scene is the film’s most famous and adds a poetic flourish to an otherwise efficient and harrowing attack on the military mindset. It isn’t clear if these French soldiers know the words to the German song, a tale of a soldier who loses his love while fighting in a foreign land, but they seem to intuit the meaning anyway, and their humming turns it into a funeral dirge. And so it may be, as they are heading back to the front where many of them will die. It’s a haunting end to the film, delivering one last emotional punch to a film filled with so many.
Lasting Impact: Huge, but strangely quiet. As of this writing, the film has a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping 8.6 rating on the fan-driven IMDB, good for #50 on the all time list, but for some reason, the movie is rarely mentioned in the canon of great films (for example, the film has never made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American movies, despite having a pedigree exactly in line with the types of films the AFI prefers to honor.)
“We lost to Yankee Doodle fucking Dandy?!”
My only guess to this odd silence is that Paths of Glory is one of those rare films identified as a classic in its own time. There’s never been a critical rediscovery (like, say, The Searchers) or a slow buildup of audience support (It’s a Wonderful Life) that can sometimes bring a movie back to the spotlight. It’s just good, it’s always been good, and everyone knows it. How boring.
Overall: Paths of Glory serves as a gateway film on this countdown, bridging the gap between some of the flawed or polarizing movies we’ve looked at and the pantheon of major classics that await us in the top five. The film also served as a gateway in Kubrick’s personal life and career, a nice bit of symmetry that we writers get off on. Before Paths of Glory, Kubrick was just another up-and-comer. After Paths of Glory, he had a career (and the love of his life.)
Here’s a dirty little secret that most film nuts hate to admit. Despite all of our bluster about the Golden Age of movies and how nobody has gotten it right since, deep down we all know the truth: movies age. Film is a language and, just like the one you’re speaking, prone to dialect. A movie from 1957 reflects the film language of its time, and fits in with today’s media about as well as a teen with a flat top and a letter jacket who says golly and gosh. (For an example, look no further than James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that defined the rebellious youth of its time but has since become hopelessly square.)
Paths of Glory defies this rule. The movie cuts right to the heart, and would do so with any audience at any time. Compared to today’s dramas it might be a little stiff or a bit too zealous, but no modern redo could be more effective. The story is the key. It’s a tale about a war almost a century old, but it’s about all wars and all injustice (in a way, this is the movie Kubrick had been trying to make with Fear and Desire). No one has to know the broader details of Franco-Prussian politics to see that something terribly wrong is being done to these men, or to understand why it’s being done at all. This is a story that happens every day, from the highest levels of power all the way down. Quiz any group of workers and you’ll hear at least one horror story of a clueless boss whose decisions make life worse for the people he leads.
These decisions get made because the men who fight the wars never control how they are fought. As in the film, the decision makers are often miles away because they are paid to plot, not fight. Anyone can fight. And, truthfully, this system works if winning wars is the kind of thing you want to do. A general might have a harder time sending his men into battle if he knew the name, face, and backstory of every soldier killed by his order. If that was the way it worked for everyone, we might just have to make due with fewer wars.
From the bunker, this looks like Call of Duty.
Instead, the generals learn to think of their men in theory. They can lose up to 55 percent, one of them explains to Dax, and still hold the target. Another speculates that the executions should be great for morale: “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” Dax doesn’t belong with the plotters. He’s in the trenches, he knows his men, and he can’t stomach to watch them wasted like a resource, not for such a silly goal as the ant hill. Dax suffers greatly because of this. From the stupid assault to the kangaroo court, he fights and fails to save his men because the power to do so isn’t his to give. The men who make the decisions have put Dax on the other side of the line, and hate him for pointing out their mistakes.
Kubrick manipulates our allegiance by placing us in the trenches with Dax’s doomed soldiers via groundbreaking camera work. The tracking shot, soon to be Kubrick’s trademark, hadn’t yet exploded in popularity, but Kubrick chooses it here to bring us into the soldiers’ world. One spectacular shot shows us life in the trenches before taking us along with the soldiers advancing through hell.
Shots like these align us with the soldiers. We know what they’re up against, and we see the impact of a rash decision. Unlike the generals, we have no need for theory.
Kubrick would follow up this film about soldiers with one about the decision makers, again showing the insanity of war by framing a Roman slave revolt as a jealous spat between Spartacus and Crassus, two men with power who want the same woman. It’s a theme he would continue to revisit, each time producing another classic, beginning here in Paths of Glory, an exceptional story told exceptionally well, and one that’s relevant to its war, this war, and every one between and since.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
6. Paths of Glory
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire