Paths of Glory (1957) is a shocking, tough and totally unromantic study in the futility of WWI trench warfare and the moral corrosion such sort of carnage can inflict, both on the soldiers in the trenches and the senior officers in charge of the strategy.
Cinematically the film is interesting because of Kubrick’s use of long (almost relentlessly long) panning shots – along the trenches, during the combat sequence and in the execution scene. There’s something very theatrical about the way Kubrick uses extended focus (and sharp background detail and depth of field) to create tension and drama. It’s expert film-making which uses composition and framing as an essential component in the story telling.
Paths of Glory is not just an anti-war film and whilst it is, more importantly, a film about the moral consequences of war and the human ability to recover from those consequences. There’s a lot of genuine ugliness, evil and betrayal in the film, but there is also courage, truthfulness, longing for justice, beauty and even humour. At by the end, the film encourages us to feel both hope and futility – the mark of a true tragedy.
There is much thought-provoking interplay between religion, existentialism, justice and forgiveness and a powerful contrast between 20th century Modernism and 19th century Romanticism. Or, to put it another way, there’s plenty of classical film making clashing with Neo-Realism.
Moreover, Paths of Glory reminds us why the legal frameworks for warfare and justice matter so much and why, in our current age we tamper with them at grave risk to the foundations of social order. It is all to easy to assume goodwill in our fellow countrymen and that those in power will protect and conserve any who labour under them. Paths of Glory draws us back to a time in the not too distant past where men, educated European men, would calculate human sacrifice for personal gain and reward.
“Maybe the attack against the Ant Hill was impossible. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been a little more daring, you might have taken it. Who knows? Why should we have to bear more criticism and failure than we have to?…These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division. There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die…You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”
Paths Of Glory is one of the least scene but nonetheless most impressive of Stanley Kubrick’s film. Profoundly well constructed and thought-provoking from beginning to end, this is a masterful film that deserves to be considered as one of the best war films of all time.