That Paths of Glory, arguably Stanley Kubrick’s first masterwork, is being reissued to mark the centenary of the Great War could be considered something of an irrelevance. The events described by the film are in fact dated to 1916, while its conflicts go some distance beyond the specific: it opened in 1958, a moment when the world was being divided up once again, with American footsoldiers being shipped off by the officer classes to carry out their dirty work on the battlefields of Asia.
If it isn’t yet as openly snarky as the Vietnam-era likes of The Dirty Dozen or M*A*S*H, Paths nevertheless draws deep from the wellspring of frustration and anger that sustained the Aldrich and Fuller war movies of its period – and its eye for the absurdities of modern warfare is clearly that of the director who would within a few years go on to make Dr. Strangelove as the Cold War took its icy grip.
Ripped from a Humphrey Cobb novel by the unsparing triumvirate of Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, the film charts the build-up to and fallout from a doomed mission in which a French battalion is sent to capture a German-occupied hill. While the generals haunt palaces some distance behind the frontline, sipping cognac and mouthing platitudes, the men – led by Kirk Douglas’s erstwhile lawyer Dax – are sent over the top to die for the greater good, a vague concept that becomes more debatable yet when the desired result doesn’t manifest, and three troops end up being court-martialled.
That this scenario was meant as non-specific is evident from the circumstances of its production. Filmed behind enemy lines in Munich with a mostly American cast playing French, Paths of Glory nevertheless showcases Kubrick’s ability to knit together coherent universes as well as, say, the director’s transformation of Beckton gas works into Hanoi in Full Metal Jacket three decades later.
Kubrick’s trenches, presumably born of a thousand photographs of what WWI trenches actually looked like, boast a muddy scale and veracity; the central battle charge similarly has a scope hitherto unseen in this filmography, and suggests what tempted the director to try and rescue Spartacus – again with Douglas – a couple of years later.
Another look reveals a few wobbles among the supporting cast. As one of those overseeing the mission, George Macready’s hyperventilating, declamatory style now looks and sounds very much Old Hollywood, where Kubrick and Douglas were working towards something new. Somewhere in here, though, there’s also the sly insinuation the actor might be a perfect representative of the kind of bluff fools idealistic young soldiers and filmmakers alike were coming up against.
If Kubrick wasn’t in total control at this stage, the film is somehow more human for that. Once the bombardment dies down, the courtroom scenes allow everyone to stand their ground and speak their piece: the officers determined to send three randomly selected men to their deaths one way or another, while Douglas’s lived-in Dax – like his director, seeing a bigger picture here – strives to put the whole war machine on trial.
Doing so ensures it isn’t just the closing scenes – a succession of gut punches – that make Paths of Glory one of the cinema’s most forceful and lasting anti-war statements. It’s the film’s ability to dramatise at each turn those issues and objections – that our troops have gone unsupported by their commanders, been abandoned to their own devices, or simply that we’ve asked too much of them – that have been raised time and again as our armies have marched from Ypres to My Lai to Fallujah. Some paths. Some glory.
(MovieMail, May 2014)
Paths of Glory screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.45am.