Paths of Glory (1957): American Auteur Stanley Kubrick’s Anti-War Masterpiece

Kubrick's epic WW1 film featuring a tour de force from Kirk Douglas

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Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, Kubrick, 1957
Paths of Glory (1957) - By Stanley Kubrick
Our Rating: 9.5
IMDb Ratings8.5
Genre: Drama | History | War
CastKirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Country: USA
Language: English | German | Latin
Runtime: 88 min
Color: Black and White

Summary: When soldiers in WW1 refuse to continue with an impossible attack, their superiors decide to make an example of them.

Paths of Glory, an adaptation of a 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, is a 1957 anti-war motion-picture directed by legendary American auteur Stanley Kubrick. Paths of Glory was Kubrick’s ticket to greatness that paved the way for his unprecedented success in the world of Cinema that he would continue to enjoy for the next four decades. Victor Hugo once said: “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.” However, in my personal opinion, an idea, however potent or grandiose, is futile if it lacks an effective embodiment. If Stanley Kubrick was the idea then, I daresay, Paths of Glory was the embodiment that catapulted him to greatness. The anti-war themes that Paths of Glory touches upon are reiterated in Kubrick’s holocaust satire, the masterful Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and in his epic Vietnam war satire, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Paths of Glory stars American movie icon Kirk Douglas in the unforgettable role of Colonel Dax.

kirk douglas as colonel dax in paths of glory, directed by stanley kubrick
Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory
Set in the backdrop of World War I, The plot of Paths of Glory gives an account of the events surrounding the failed conquest of “Anthill”—a strategically important French territory under German occupation. After miraculously halting the German juggernaut at the outskirts of Paris, the French Army, in a desperate attempt to defend their territory, launches a volley of attacks to drive away the Germans. This results in development of a continuous line of heavily fortified trenches extending up to 500 miles in length across the frontier separating France and Germany. Even after two relentless years of trench warfare—with hundreds of thousands of causalities—the status quo pretty much remains the same with the German Army still holding key French positions. Despite the best efforts of the French Army, their dream of completely wiping out the Germans off their land still continues to elude them. It soon becomes a matter of great pride for the French Army as the French High Command decides to put an end to the German occupation by launching  direct assaults in the areas that hold the key to the German positions in the occupied sectors.

firing squad in paths of glory, directed by stanley kubrick
The Paths of Glory: Stigmatized Soldiers face Firing Squad 
A debilitated French regiment, overwhelmed by the incessant battles to wipe out the resilient German occupation, is asked to launch an unplanned, nigh suicidal attack into the German stronghold of Anthill. Pitted against enormous odds, the 701st regiment, under the command of Colonel Dax, capitulates to the German countercharge as more than half the unit members fail to even leave their own barracks. General Paul Mireau—the head of the sector—does not take the defeat in good spirit and decides to make an example of those who let him and the country down with their abject cowardice. He orders Colonel Dax to choose three soldiers—one from each company of the regiment—to be executed on grounds of cowardice. Gravely aggrieved by the strange stand of the General, Dax protests in the favor of his men, but all his efforts go in vain as the psychopath General orders for a court-martial.

Christian Harlan sings "The Faithful Hussar" in Paths of Glory, German Prisoner. Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Christian Harlan sings "The Faithful Hussar"
Colonel Dax tries his level best to cogently present the case of his three men during the military trial but all his pleas seem to fall on deaf ears as it soon becomes apparent that the hearing is nothing more than a charade to carry out the orders of General Mireau. Dax questions the integrity of a military court that flouts the very tenets that it ought to protect and describes the trial as a stain on the honor of France. Acting as per the whims of the General Mireau, the military court finds the accused soldiers guilty of cowardice as the trio is brutally executed by a firing squad as Dax helplessly witnesses the macabre incident. Paths of Glory ends with an unforgettable sequence in which the soldiers of the 701st regiment are seen enjoying the performance of a captured German lady who, after being ridiculed and humiliated by the presenter, is forcibly asked to sing a song for the entertainment of the French soldiers. The lady, despite being in a state of shock, sings the German folk song “The Faithful Hussar”. The seemingly indifferent soldiers are suddenly moved by the poignancy of the song and her mellifluous voice as they start to sing it in unison with her as tears start to drip from their eyes. The plaintive song serves to be a great moment of epiphany as Kubrick uses it to tighten the noose on the hitherto indifferent viewers who are vicariously made to experience catharsis.  

Stanley Kubrick's Sci-Fi Space Odyssey, Vertical Walk
A Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Eye Stretched, Ultraviolent, Experirment, Forced to Watch
Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange
When I first forayed into the world of cinema, I was enchanted by the Anglo-American canvas of movie-making but after having allowed myself to be stimulated by a myriad of global cinematic motifs I seldom experience that old sense of titillation while exploring the Anglo-American Cinema. However, on those rare occasions when I do experience a kind of déjà vu, I know for certain that I am treading through Kubrick’s cinematic horizon. Stanley Kubrick, in my personal opinion, was Anglo-American Cinema's most potent reply to the 'Fellinis', the 'Bunuels', the 'Bergmans', the 'Kurosawas', the 'Rays', and the 'Tarkovskys' of the world. Universally revered for his uncanny moviemaking style and his endless craving for perfection, Kubrick had succeeded in impressing the masses, critics and the film-makers alike with his avant-garde, thought-provoking works of art constituting a body of work that seemed to cover the entire movie horizon: be it The Killing (1956)—a Noir masterpiece; Spartacus (1960)—an Epic Drama; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—a Sci-Fi extravaganza; A Clockwork Orange (1971)—a Futuristic Crime Thriller; Barry Lyndon (1975)—a period Romantic Drama;  The Shining (1980)—a Horror masterpiece; or Eyes Wide Shut (1999)—a psychedelic Suspense Thriller.     

Paths of Glory, George Macready as General Paul Mireau, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Paths of Glory: George Macready as General Paul Mireau
Adolphe Menjou as General George Broulard, Paths of Glory, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Adolphe Menjou as General George Broulard
The beauty of a Stanley Kubrick film is that it forces the viewers to think, for the end product is always more than the sum of its parts. Paths of Glory is no different from a quintessential Kubrick film in this regard. Instead of striving for happy endings that would cater well to the needs of quotidian viewers, Kubrick rather preferred to offer his viewers some food for thought with the hope scorching their indifference and overcoming their ignorance in order to reinvigorate their nigh muted senses. In Paths of Glory, Kubrick exposes and mocks the draconian, jingoistic practices preached and promoted in the armed forces in the name of patriotism. Kubrick uses the caricatures of incorrigibly corrupt and cynical military commanders to limn a grim picture of moral decline in a diabolical world that men have designed for themselves where human life is valued in terms of squares of yards of land captured from the clutches of their adversaries.  The Paths of Glory also underlines the corruptibility of power and its infinite sphere of influence that encompasses anyone and everyone. The Paths of Glory also exalts empathy and compassion as the supreme virtues that separate a human being from a beast. Under the cloud of pessimism, The Paths of Glory has a strong undercurrent of optimism which is most visible in the song sung by the beautiful German lady whose innocent, mellifluous voice becomes a symbol of hope for the decrepit, despondent soldiers.

kirk douglas as colonel dax, loses his cool, abuses the General George Broulard
Paths of Glory: Colonel Dax finally loses his cool
Colonel Dax—an idealistic, suave, cogent and compassionate army officer—symbolizes the very spirit of humanity that instills in humans an eternal sense of  optimism that gives them the courage to rise after a fall and the hope to fight till their last breath despite huge odds. What makes the role really challenging is the dichotomy associated with it: Dax is a military officer who must acquiesce to the whims of his superiors but at the same time he is an idealist who cannot allow his duties to come in the way of his principles. Kirk Douglas perfectly fits into the complex caricature of Colonel Dax and gives an unforgettable performance—enhanced with subtleties and nuances—that’s up there with the very best in Cinema. The beauty of Douglas’ portrayal is that despite being a rebel with a cause, amidst the pervasive injustice, he always seems to be in control of his words and actions, as expected from a military officer of his rank, knowing where to draw the line while still being relentless in questioning the pseudo-patriotism and ulterior motives of his superiors until the penultimate when he finally loses both his patience and composure as he excoriates General George Broulard—member of the French General Staff—calling him a degenerate, sadistic old man. During his tour de force, Douglas delivers some of the most powerful diatribes against human hypocrisy and their overzealous ambition for war; my most favorite is the one in which he quotes the English author Samuel Johnson’s famous statement: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Major, Paths of Glory - Anthill, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Paths of Glory: Kirk Douglas and George Macready (right)  
Kirk Douglas is well supported by a great assemblage of supporting actors, most of whom give memorable performances with special mention of Adolphe Menjou as Gen. George Broulard and George Macready as Gen. Paul Mireau. It’s worth mentioning that the young actress who sings the final song is Christian Susanne Harlan who soon after married Stanley Kubrick—the couple shared a four decade relation which ended with Kubrick’s death in 1999. The movie’s black and white cinematography is exemplary both in style and effect and it packs a punch stronger than some of the more recent war masterpieces like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). The slow, long shots in Paths of Glory emphasize upon the tedium of the war, the plight of men doomed to die in no man’s land and the indifference of those who are ruling the rooster. The articulation of cinematic space, which is also known as mise en scène, when achieved through the use of long uncut camera sequence serves as a great means of drawing attention for itself. In cinematic parlance, mise en scène—the articulation of space—is a potent device that is often used by in contrast with another device called montage, which is the cinematic articulation of time. Kubrick's later works like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining most eloquently demonstrate the master’s uncanny predilection for the use of cinematic space through long uncut shots—a unique facet of his moviemaking genius that is often described by his staunch critics as a mere exercise in style.

Christian Harlan sings The Faithful Hussar, 701st French Regiment, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Paths of Glory: The 701st Regiment listens to the German War Prisoner
Overall, just like Kubrick’s other masterful, sui generis works, Paths of Glory is an engaging cinematic experience that continues to linger long after the movie is over. Paths of Glory is arguably the greatest anti-war movie of all time. Renowned critic Roger Ebert has added The Paths of Glory to his list of ‘Great Movies’. In his review of Paths of Glory for Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert quips on a remark made by French auteur François Truffaut, “When Truffaut famously said that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, because action argues in favor of itself, he could not have been thinking of Paths of Glory.” Paths of Glory is a great means to get acquainted with Kubrick’s oeuvre before exploring his more personal works like Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The movie is a must watch for those viewers who have a penchant for intelligent cinema that transcends the conventional definition of entertainment. Highly Recommended!  

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

For Best Films by Stanley Kubrick, please click here

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Paths of Glory Trailer

The Finale: German Lady Sings 'The Faithful Hussar'

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  1. Excellent detailed review. Paths of Glory is one of the unforgettable movie, i have ever seen, especially the last scene, where the soldiers face the firing squad. You are right, this movie is more powerful than any recent anti-war movies like "Saving Private Ryan", "Platoon" etc

  2. Thanks Arun for those kind words! The scene that you have described is indeed unforgettable!!!

  3. my favorite Kubrick movie...Murtaza, I need to have spare time to watch these movies and enjoy your reviews thoroughly. You tempt me too much and leave me hanging

  4. Lol! I take it as a compliment :-P

    Kubrick's movies are timeless and one is ought to discover something new during each viewing irrespective of the number of times one has already savored them. So, I am sure that you will not be at a loss if you do plan to re-watch Paths of Glory.

  5. This is a wonderful review. I have never seen any Kubrick film but have a heard a lot about his great, intelligent cinema during my film classes so will hopefully watch this one first before watching Clockwork Orange(as you suggested)!

  6. Thanks Aakanksha! Kubrick was always ahead of his time and most of his works are timeless. Even today, you will find very few works in cinema that come close to his cinematic masterpieces. Yes, you must goes ahead with Paths of Glory before exploring his more personal works. I would love to hear from you one you have watched Paths of Glory :-P

  7. Firstly, thanks for the follow. I agree with the others, great review and great movie. It's a shame that this gets lost in the shuffle among other Kubrick films. Rarely does a war movie reach people on such an emotional level.

  8. Thanks Dusty... the pleasure is all mine!!! Paths of Glory is the most powerful anti-war movie of all time, perhaps along with Terrence Mallick's The Thin Red Line. It's indeed a pity that despite its resonating power, Paths of Glory is quite under-rated.

  9. Just found this site and I'm glad I did, looking forward to exploring the archives now :)

  10. Thanks a lot, mate! I would love to hear your opinion about my blog :-)

  11. Oh wow, you're so lucky that you'll get to watch Kubrick's movies fresh. I recommend Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, er actually just watch them all :)

  12. Great review. Stanley Kubrick is one of my favourite directors and I worship each and every film of his. This film was raw and energetic and still lingers in my mind as much as Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Tigerland :)

  13. Thanks a ton, Hari! Stanley Kubrick also happens to be one of my all time favorite moviemakers. Unfortunately, I haven't yet watched Platoon and Tigerland, for I have never really been a war movie fan, perhaps with the possible exception of Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and now Paths of Glory!!! :-)


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