Whenever people argue over Stanley Kubrick’s greatest film, it’s always a battle between the usual suspects. 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining will always garner much of the praise. However, if you look closer at the extraordinary legacy left by this visionary director, you’ll discover a filmography that’s packed with cinematic gems. There’s Barry Lyndon, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and then there’s Paths Of Glory – Kubrick’s ambitious and controversial third feature, which stands as an unsung highlight in his illustrious career.
Based on Humphrey Cobb’s antiwar novel from 1935, Paths Of Glory is a raw and rebellious examination of the true horrors of war. From the dirt and danger of the trenches, to the bureaucratic injustice of a military Court Martial, Kubrick meticulously weaves a richly detailed portrait of human conflict. He aggressively condemns the actions of those who fought the First World War from behind a desk, and valiantly salutes the bravery of those who died in the trenches.
Kubrick’s intentions are clear from the start. As a voiceover describes the severity of the situation within the French trenches, we gaze upon the untouched beauty of a French chateau. It is a film determined to emphasize the hypocrisy of this tragic conflict, which saw commanders callously order millions of men to their deaths with very little support or justification.
It is one such operation that was planned by Generals Broulard & Mireau from within the aforementioned chateau. Their orders were passed on to Colonel Dax, who valiantly tried to march his men forward on a suicidal mission across no man’s land to capture a strategic stronghold. Unsurprisingly, the operation ended in Dax and his men retreating. Infuriated by what he perceived as a lack of courage, Mireau demanded that three random men from the regiment be selected and prosecuted for the crime of cowardice, which would carry the death sentence when they were inevitably found guilty. Dax determinedly tried to defend the men, but the outcome was inescapable.
Despite being Kubrick’s first major commercial success, Paths Of Glory was surrounded in controversy when it was released in 1958 to a Europe still reeling from the lasting effects of the Second World War. The French naturally dismissed the film’s portrayal of their military system and the film was not shown in the country until 1975. Though while the film may focus on the French Military, the themes that run through Paths Of Glory reverberate much closer to home. The film is not solely condemning the actions of the French, but the ethics of the military in general, who believed that executing those who showed cowardice would strengthen the resolve of the others to fight.
Much of the mise-en-scene spews with the extravagance of those who fought the war from behind the scenes. Kubrick shows no fear in accentuating his opinions; his camera lingers on the gleaming medals that shine from the torsos of the General’s pristine uniforms, it coldly captures the overindulgence of the banquets held at the HQ of the French High Command, and it harrowingly captures the devastating reality of life on the frontline. Kubrick’s unbroken reverse-tracking shot through the trenches is hypnotically breathtaking. While his visceral depictions of a battle across no man’s land are hauntingly terrifying, the incredible sound mixing by Martin Muller & Al Gramaglia delicately captures the horror, confusion and determination of those who went over the top, as well as the ferocity of the German machine guns that were waiting for them.
The uniformly excellent performances, particularly from Kirk Douglas & George Macready, bolster Kubrick’s vision even further. Paths Of Glory is a powerfully compassionate acknowledgment of how men unfairly suffered at the hands of both the enemy and their commanders during the First World War, with Kubrick’s sensational talent for filmmaking creating a window in to a world many would rather ignore.
Paths Of Glory is having an extended run at the BFI Southbank between the 2nd & 15th of May. Full details can be found here.