In the words of Edwin Starr, absolutely nothing, and I get the feeling that Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas would both echo that, though perhaps not in the same manner. Both seemed absolutely intent on making this story, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, into a cinematic reality. And we should be thankful for their diligence because the searing anti-war message of Paths of Glory remains as powerful today as it ever was.
It’s 1916, and the First World War has been raging for two years. In Europe, a stalemate has been reached and the armies are dug in well. An order to attack a heavily fortified German position is passed down through the ranks of the French army until it reaches Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Despite recognising that the attack is suicidal, he orders his men forward. The attack is a disaster, with some men even refusing to leave their trenches. This enrages General Mireau (George Macready) and he orders the court-martial of three men from each company. I’ll say no more as not to spoil any of the events that follow, but rest assured that knowing the plot never hampers Paths of Glory and it manages to hit home every time.
This may be a story set within the French army but the fact that the actors are not French, do not speak French, and do not even speak English with French accents is indicative of the universal nature of its message. It’s not so much about the tragedy of the First World War as it is about the horrific nature of all wars. It could be transplanted into any other war scenario and still resonate, and therein lies its real strength.
Other war films might choose to portray the horrors of warfare using gory details, showing battle injuries and deaths as they occur in gruesome ways, and while this can be very effective, Paths of Glory takes a different approach. There is only one battle scene to speak of and most of the film unfolds through the dialogue between characters where you quickly begin to realise that rank is extremely important. This leads to the truly unsettling aspect about war that the film portrays. As you go up the ranks, the value of human life decreases rapidly. Generals talk of casualties as statistics, using patriotism to bully their troops and even refer to ordinary soldiers as ‘animals’ first and ‘scum’ later. Paths of Glory shows that war is truly horrific because it makes life a cheap commodity.
The acting and script are superb throughout, but it’s the camera work that really leaves you with the biggest impression. It always casts the audience as the observer, never throwing you into the action. Instead its movements are slow and methodical, the best examples being the long tracking shots that Kubrick deliberately keeps long to give a sense of grim inevitability. One such sequence near the end of the film becomes almost uncomfortable but its hard to look away.
Paths of Glory is an important film and practically necessary viewing for everyone. It’s unflinching and stark view of war never fails to be unpleasant and heart-breaking, and that’s exactly how it should be. The poem from which the book takes its title says it best – “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”