Stanley Kubrick’s second and best war film was set during World War I, but its message feels just as universal and existential as that of Fear and Desire, his enigmatic and mercurial debut. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, the screenplay by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson focuses upon a group of soldiers who are forced into an impossible mission in an effort to break the stalemate of the Western Front in 1916. The film opens in a chateau behind the French line, where Major Georges Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, instructs his subordinate, General Paul Mireau, played by George Macready, to order his troops to take a previously unassailable German structure known as the “Anthill.” From here, we shift to the trenches, where the charge is led by Corporal Paris, played by Ralph Meeker, and Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas. Whereas Dax is noble and courageous, Paris is a cowardly drunk, accidentally killing one of his men when trying to cross no-man’s-land. Both men have different opinions about taking the Anthill, but both also follow orders as well as they can, until the soldiers inevitably fall back into the French trenches, at which point Mireau instructs the Allied leaders to fire on their own men. When they refuse, and the Anthill remains insurmountable, Broulard and Mireau order three soldiers to be chosen at random for court-martial, while Dax appoints himself as chief defensive counsel, and advocates for their lives.
In other words, the main antagonist in Paths of Glory is the Allied military command, especially the French army, with no real sense of Germans as enemies. In fact, there is no real sense of soldiers, generally, as enemies, since we only glimpse the German fortifications through binoculars, which suggest the panoptic omniscience of the Allied leaders more than any tangible German presence. In this version of the war, death primarily resulted from Allied incompetence – from the incompetence of both sides – rather than from enemy soldiers. That’s a provocative opening statement, and paves the way for a radically pacifist and anti-authoritatian manifesto, which effectively turns into a Marxist critique of warfare once Kubrick settles us into the court-martial venue – the chateau where Broulard and Mireau have been living behind the front line. This chateau, which briefly appears in the first act, but dominates the second and third, collapses the Allied commanders into the aristocracy of an older era, allowing Kubrick to present war as a mechanism for maintaining class divisions – and the court-martial as a particularly pointed instance of class warfare, insofar as the soldiers are chosen completely at random, as mere representatives of their social and military class.
The cavernous spaces of this chateau thereby situate us in the long class war between soldiers and leaders, presenting their architectural accumulation of wealth and privilege for a select few as the raison d’etre of World War I and (by extension) World War II. This chateau is even more striking in that Kubrick condenses the entire visual syntax of American war cinema into the abbreviated first act – trenches, charges, ruins, squalor – making this reversion to Louis XV opulence seem like a missive from another era. In effect, the court martial converges with the royal court that once controlled this palace – and its demands are just as authoritarian. Not only is Dax prohibited from any due legal process, but the soldiers’ sensory experiences are totally discredited, especially their sense of sight: “The court has no interest in your visual experience.” In fact, the soldiers’ main crime often seems to be visual cognition, since they only turned back from the advance after (correctly) seeing that the mission was impossible. Put even more bluntly, the soldiers are being tried for sentience – for not being dead – since one of them was unable to advance because he was knocked out, and so committing the crime of waking from his concussion rather than dying on the spot. Just as Mireau dismisses the existence of shell shock in the opening scenes, here the commanders compound and crystallise the effects of shell shock, alienating the soldiers further from their sensory experience – or clarifying that military institution is in and of itself a mechanism of shell shock.
In summary, then, the soldiers are being tried for even daring to mount a defence, which means that the trial is a foregone conclusion – a perverse and sadistic exercise in class warfare rather than a proper investigation. Unlike most “critical” war films, which focus on bad apples, Paths of Glory rejects war itself as a phenomenon, and the military itself as an institution. Given that the whole trial boils down to denying the visual experiences of soldiers – or punishing them for daring to have visual experiences – Kubrick has to avoid his camera naturally aligning itself with the commanders, who have already claimed totally perceptual possession of the military landscape by the time the audience arrive. In order to effect a line of flight from the commanders’ sightlines, Kubrick adopts two quite different strategies, which together comprise the “paths of glory” of the film’s title. First, he insatiably tracks Dax as he moves across the courtroom, adopting unusual perspectives and disorienting sightlines, while pairing these with the distortion of sounds and voices across this echoing, cavernous space. Second, he parodically over-identifies his camera with the presumed omniscience of the court-martial table, adopting hyper-stylised symmetrical shots that throw the face of each soldier into vivid relief with the rest of the military apparatus and palace in deep focus behind them, as if to exhaust the army’s fantasmatic project of scrutinising each individual soldier.
Yet even these lines of flight, and paths of glory, aren’t sufficient to prevent the execution, as the men are led back to prison and the palace scenes grow more decadent, culminating with a party that unfolds as Dax appeals to Broulard for leniency. As the party peaks, Broulard assures Dax that killing soldiers at random is necessary for morale, as we reach the degree zero of class warfare – the proposition that the lower classes want and need to be kept in their place. No surprise, then, that the execution scene utterly exhausts the ideals of soldierly duty and dignity, as the three condemned men realise that it doesn’t matter whether they cry, or moan, or look abject, since the military values they once espoused no longer hold any meaning for them. As they walk to the firing squad, Kubrick’s compositions grow more expansive and symmetrical, invoking Triumph of the Will as more and more layers of ceremony are added, until the entire army seems to be present. The last layer are the local media that the commanders have co-opted to record the occasion; media that Kubrick and his audience can only escape through a total and utter repudiation of the military-industrial complex, along with the institutions that have enabled it, from the liberal press to the church, which initially seems like a respite from the army, but eventually becomes complicit with it.
In lieu of a stable religious presence, the three soldiers are now set up as an antitype of the crucifixion, as Kubrick evokes a new global narrative based on class instead of religion – or a radicalised Christian iconography that sides with the working-class instead of military-industrial institutions. A similar thing occurs at the end of Spartacus, Kubrick’s next film, where crucifixion imagery is once again folded into class struggle, although in that case this struggle is primarily framed in terms of the institution of slavery, rather than the institution of military service. In Paths of Glory, this transplanted iconography sets up the most visceral scene in Kubrick’s career so far, set to a prolonged drum beat and a series of enormous military formations that position the arbitrary sacrifice of soldiers as the ideological kernel of the class system, before we cut back to Broulard and Mireau eating a feast of quail eggs in the palace while observing that the men “died wonderfully,” and approving of their sacrifice.
For a moment, it looks like Kubrick will opt for a fairly safe liberal ending, as Dax rejects a promotion, and calls Broulard a “degenerate, sadistic old man” before storming out of the room. Yet this individual moment of triumph is offset by the incredible final scene, which sees Dax observing a group of his men as they watch a musical performance in a local tavern. As the men laugh and catcall, the first German, and first woman, is introduced into the film – a prisoner of war who reluctantly and tearfully performs a salty ditty for the soldiers. Watching the men enjoy her body and presence, an odd expression comes over Dax’s face, which for a moment seems to modulate into Kubrick’s own, as it betrays a seething hatred for the complacency of soldiers as much as commanders, and a total rejection of war, including those soldiers who voluntarily enlist. Yet this moment modulates once again as the soldiers grow quiet, stunned and shamed by the woman’s voice, but also by their recognition of the tune, which they start to hum in unison, buoyed by a subliminal sense of class solidarity with this unnamed women – prescient that they are somehow looking at an ally rather than an enemy, as tears start to form in their eyes too. Finally, a complete tear runs down a soldiers’ face, collapsing the men and the woman into a class of prisoners-at-war, as Dax receives news of a return to the front, but lets the men enjoy this class communion for a final few seconds, before they are conditioned to see Germans, and other soldiers, as the “enemy” once again. In that hesitation lies one of the deftest dissections of warfare ever committed to film, and one of the greatest endings from a director renowned for his ability to end his films perfectly.