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Paths of Glory

Directed by Stanley Kubrick with Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson & Ralph Meeker, black & white, 86 minutes, 1957


Cover of DVD edition of Paths of Glory

Cover of DVD Edition of "Paths of Glory" with Kirk Douglas

By Carter B. Horsley

Insubordination is the failure to perform one's duties and "Paths of Glory" is a classic anti-war movie set in World War I that examines this theme simply, but very strongly.

French generals order and attack on the "ant-hill," a very well protected German fortifications during the battle over done even though the generals admit that the attacks casualties may reach 60 percent.

The attack begins and quickly fails as the French troops are mowed down by machine-gunfire and intense artillery barrages and one company does not even get out of its trenches, which infuriates one of the generals who proceeds to order his own artillery to shell the company's own trenches. The artillery officer, however, refuses to obey, insisting on written orders to that effect and general Mireau, played by George Macready, threatens him with execution the next day.

At the meeting at headquarters after the French have retreated back to their trenches and forsaken the doomed attack, the general, who is still infuriated at the cowardice of the company that did not move out of its trenches and the failure of the other companies to secure the "anthill," demands the court-martial be held immediately and that soldiers be executed for cowardice as an "example."

His superior general, Gneral George Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, suggests that a dozen soldiers should be so tried, but Colonel Dax, played by for Douglas, who led the attack, sarcastically suggests that the whole company be tried, or better yet, just him as the commander. General Broulard interrupts him to remind him that court-martials should not involve officers and General Mireau settles the discussion by magnanimously insisting that only one man from each of the three companies involved in the attack should be selected for court-martial. Colonel Dax tells his company commanders to select those to be tried and, as a former lawyer, he volunteers to defend them.

The court-martial, however, is a mockery of justice and the men are found guilty despite their obvious individual heroics, and they are sentenced to be executed the next day. Colonel Dax confronts General Broulard with some statements that General Mireau had ordered his artillery to fire on his own troops, but General Broulard exits the room without indicating what action he might take.

The next morning the soldiers are executed in a memorable scene full of circumstance, if not, pomp.

Afterwards, General Mireau thanks General Broulard for attending the execution, which he himself had not gone to. General Broulard notes that the executed soldiers "died wonderfully." General Mireau appears relaxed, but his composure is shaken when the superior informs him of Colonel Dax's charges about his ordering the artillery to bombard his own troops. "There'll have to be an inquiry," General Broulard states, matter-of-factly. General Mireau storms out of the room and General Broulard congratulates Colonel Dax and says he will succeed the general. Colonel Dax explodes in anger and General Broulard expresses surprise, suggesting that Colonel Dax had maneuvered and expected such a reward.

Kirk Douglas is excellent as Colonel Dax: disciplined, restrained, intelligent, impassioned, and, in his final confrontation with General Broulard, explosively outraged. Unfortunately his field uniform is very unattractive, especially with the helmet tied tightly around his face, a surprisingly unattractive costume, especially in contrast with the quality and dazzle of his generals' outfits.

George Macready and Adolphe Menjou, however, run away with the acting honors in this film and both are Oscar-worthy performances, though incredibly the film received no Oscar nominations. The movie was banned for 20 years in France, presumably because of its harsh depiction of the French generals.

Macready, who was best known as the villain in "Gilda," the great film noir that also starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, sports a very realistic and large scar on his right cheek, and his posture is painfully rigid. His portrayal of General Mireau as an imperious, ambitious and vengeful general is fantastic.

When first asked by General Broulard to make the attack, General Mireaul explains that is unreasonable and not something in which he believed, establishing his character as a realistic leader, supportive of his responsibilities to the men under him.

General Broulard, however, stresses the importance of the attack and how well it would help General Mireau in his promising career. General Mireau is sophisticated enough to realize that his career advancement is at stake and with considerable subtlety replies with tense but mounting enthusiasm that he will make the attack.

The scene, relatively brief, is the "turning point," as the audience and General Mireau realize that if he turns down the order, his career will be over and that someone else will make the attack. These "opportunities" come rarely in life and usually require split-second decisions. General Mireau obviously is loath to lose the opportunity and the possibility of even better circumstances. He decides to stay within the "chain-of-command" and, in more contemporary parlance, to "go with the flow."

Later when he relays the attack order to Colonel Dax, General Mireau reveals that is completely aware of the order's high degree of risk for his troops, methodically estimating what percentages of casualties will befall his troops at each stage of the attack, an appalling total of 60 percent, which he says is "acceptable."

Colonel Dax, protesting that the attack is foolish, especially without significant support, acquiesces, nonetheless, to the order, without any hints of promotion.

The next day, General Mireau marches through the troops' frontline trenches, presumably to show leadership and inspire morale. He stops to ask several soldiers "Are you ready to kill Germans today?" And it is clear by his perfunctory repetition of the same question that he is merely going through the motions of a commander. He then asked another soldier if he has a wife and when a nearby officer explains that he is shell-shocked, General Mireau insists there is no such thing as "shell-shocked" and slaps the man in an episode very similar to the infamous slapping incident involving General Patton of the U.S. Army in World War II.

Military protocol does not condone officers slapping soldiers and Patton was ordered to apologize to his command. General Mireau's slapping incident occurred in a different war and when human decencies were not always as keenly observed. World War I slaughtered millions of Europe's young men and the art of war was not as advanced his World War II and the Army in this case was French, not English or American, with presumably somewhat different standards of "rules of engagement."

It should be noted that General Mireau's pre-battle march through the trenches is a great tracking shot as the trenches are irregular in size and winding. The battleground, as opposed to battle, scenes are extremely effective, fully conveying the horrific prospect of advancing through such treacherous terrain. The scenes are as finely done and indelible as those in another great World War I movie, "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Colonel Dax launches and leads the attack but when he soon notices that not all the troops have not followed he returns to the trenches to exhort them to join the fray. Cowering, the men don't want to, but he demonstrates his leadership and mounts a small ladder to lead the charge only to be knocked over by a retreating soldier who has just been shot. The colonel then grudgingly realizes that the attack is hopeless or "impossible," as Lieutenant Roget, played by Wayne Morris, cravenly explained to him just before he began to leave the second charge.

Earlier in the film, Colonel Dax had ordered Lieutenant Roget to lead a patrol of three the night before the attack and during that patrol he panicked and pitched a grenade that killed a member of his own patrol as witnessed by the patrol's other surviving member - Corporal Phillip Paris, played by Ralph Meeker, who had gone to school with Lieutenant Roget. Lieutenant Roget flees the scene and assumes that the corporal will also die, but Corporal Paris courageously moves forward and discovers the dead body of the other member of the patrol torn apart by the grenade town by the lieutenant. Corporal Paris manages to get back to his own lines and confronts the Lieutenant, only to be interrupted by Colonel Dax who was looking for the lieutenants's report on the patrol. The lieutenant, who had written his report already stating that he was the only survivor withholds it and says it is not yet ready and praises the corporal. The corporal conceals his outrage of the lieutenant's conduct and says nothing to Colonel Dax, again a spur-of-the-moment decision that in real life similarly challenges moral principles.

The corporal also happens to be one of the three soldiers queried about their readiness to kill Germans by General Mireau before the battle and as it works out each of these three are the soldiers chosen to stand court-martial for execution.

The fact that Lieutenant Roget would select Corporal Paris as the victim from his company reinforces his great villainy. One could argue that the lieutentant should have been grateful enough that the corporal had not exposed his cowardice when the Colonel interrupted them although the Lieutenant had little reason to not expect the corporal to somehow and sometime get back at him. Not only was the Lieutenant a coward who killed one of his own man, possibly in what would now be considered "friendly fire" but also he fled, presumably leaving his other patrol member, the corporal, to die.

Many other movies would treat the patrol and the cowardice of the lieutenant as an entire film and one could fault Kubrick a bit for the coincidence of the three soldiers chosen to be executed also being the three interrogated by General Mireau in the trenches. Certainly the coincidence is excessive, although the corporal's role is more understandable as a contrast the evil of the generals with the evil of the lieutenant. War does not always bring out the best and men.

Surprisingly, most critics, almost all of who love the film, focus on the evil of the generals and hardly touch on the evil of the lieutenant, an omission excusable possibly only about brevity of their reviews. Kubrick clearly pays a lot of attention to the lieutenant's character and has Colonel Dax select him to be in charge of the executions. The colonel clearly has suspicions about the lieutenant and pointedly refuses to let him off the duty despite his fervent declaration that he would prefer not to do it. The colonel spells out forcefully what the lieutenant must to do at the execution including the coup de grace.

Wayne Morris gives a very good performance, one that is frankly more complex than other critics have noted. He drinks to bolster his courage ajd is obviously a weak man, forlorn at being in a place surrounded by death. He is not honorable. Indeed, he is very evil, caring only about his own survival at any cost. His evil is worse than that of the generals. Online, at the front, one must have confidence and faith in one's comrades. It is very upfront and personal.

Generals, on the other hand, are expected to make tough decisions for the greater good of the campaign, the clause. They're not expected to be very "personal."

General Broulard never adequately explains the urgency of the attack on the "anthill" and one suspects that all he knows is that his superiors had ordered him to have the attack made, presumably under political pressure for an expedient "breakthrough." It is a little odd that there is no special build-up of reinforcements for this "push" and its strategic importance is not made clear. In any event, in the military an order is an order and individuals are secondary to collective objectives.

In ordering the shelling of his own troops, General Mireau indulges in an action that has been treated in other movies as a desperate measure when positions are overrun. In this instance, however, there was no counterattack and the order was purely punitive and inexcusable. General Mireau clearly had "lost it" but Kubrick does not give him the easy out of a "breakdown" but shows him calm, cool and collected in the meeting with General Broulard and Colonel Dax after the attack.

The film does not bother to analyze the niceties of temporary insanity, a defense that would not surface until sometime long after World War I.

The crux of the film is the role of General Broulard. He is portrayed as an extremely cultivated and sophisticated man of great charm. His hands are "clean." He is doing his important job.

The climax of the movie is when he congratulates Colonel Dax on his coming promotion to General Mireau's job and compliments him for his brilliant maneuvering. Colonel Dax vigorously denies such plotting and proclaims his interest simply to be in his men and justice.

General Broulard is affronted, but realizes that he has wrongly "read" the colonel's motives and he bristles when Colonel Dax insists he is not his "boy."

The coda of the film is a scene in which a female German refugee is forced to sing to entertain the troops. The girl, played by Christiane Kubrick, the director's third wife, struggles to sing a popular song and soon the men join in. The colonel walks by, hears the song, and tells an assistant to give his troops a few more minutes before they must go back to the front on new orders, apparently from General Broulard.

The film is beautifully and starkly photographed by George Krause in black and white and is based on a 1935 novel.

Meeker is stalwart throughout but even he succumbs to tears and fears as execution nears. He is human. The other two men are stark contrasts - one is played by Joe Turkel with quiet stoicism and the other by Timothy Carey with whimpering incoherence - and both give superb performances. Richard Anderson is thoroughly and rigidly unlovable as a lackey officer, Major Saint-Auban, under General Mireau.

Execution scenes are fairly routine in the movies. We are almost inured to famous last words, dangling, trembling feet, bullet-pocked walls and even Frank Sinatra recordings. Here the event takes place not in some jail yard or at a riverbed tree but in the formal gardens of an impressive European palace. Kubrick does not rush the scene and it is not as memorable as the lyrical ending of "Breaker Morant" because this is not a film about comrades but an angry diatribe against more than those who wages and permit injustice.

It does not have a happy ending.

All of the main characters have their foibles, to put it mildly, although Kirk Douglas's role is the most heroic and honorable. All of the characters, with the exception of Major Saint-Auban, are interesting and demonstrate at some point some redeeming virtues. The greatness of the film lies in Kubrick's unsympathetic depiction of the fragile balances between reason and emotion, right and wrong and human frailities. The generals depicted by Macready and Menjou are not out-and-out beasts, although General Mireau's command to fire on his troops crosses the line obviously. They are seasoned professionals, well versed in the politics of their military profession. They bear responsibility, of course, and few viewers will shed tears for General Mireau. The victims are the grunts, the foot soldiers, and theirs is a terrible lot. Why there are not more mutinies is a mystery but martial law is severe. Kubrick does not browbeat the issue, but the drum rolls of the execution scene pound away at the viewers' consciences. What would they have done in such hellish circumstances?

War, of course, is hell, but the nuances of Kubrick's film suggest that the human character is not always benign, that righteous causes do not always conquer, that reason often does not have time to ripen and that life can be brutal, cruel and fickle. As the refugee girl pitifully sings the song to the soldiers, their oafish meanness turns into communal nostalgia for better days and Colonel Dax hopes that they can enjoy it for a few moments even if their prospects for survival are dire.

Decency and good intentions are not enough to excuse the slaughter, the selfishness, the stupidity and the ruthlessness. Colonel Dax does his best and it is not enough, but his protests to General Broulard saved some lives and led to the removal of General Mireau. The real hero of the movie is the artillery officer who refuses to obey the general's command. That officer, however, has only a minor role in the film.

"Paths of Glory" is profoundly disturbing and haunting.

This film is ranked 38th in the top 250 films by users of the Internet movie database at http://www.imdb.com/Title?0073195 as of August 7, 2001, but it did not place on the American Film Institute's list of 100 best American films at http://www.afionline and his 34th on Carter B. Horsley' Top 500 sound films list at http://www.thecityreview.com/topfilms.html.

Click here to order the DVD edition of "Paths of Glory" from Amazon.com for 20 percent off its $14.95 list price.

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