WWI in Classic Film: PATHS OF GLORY (1957)

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray

Stanley Kubrick offers a portrayal of grotesque inhumanity in his 1957 film, PATHS OF GLORY – as harrowing a motion picture as I’ve ever seen.


PATHS OF GLORY is one of those movies that must be seen and not described (although I attempt it here) because there really is no way to do it justice in words.  As the poster declares, it is a BOMBSHELL!  In images.  Of PATHS, director Martin Scorsese said that he’d never seen such an honest film and what made it honest was the objective way Kubrick shot it, specifically by way of the dolly shots used throughout the film that “allowed the audience to make up its mind about what it was seeing.”   That sums up

the experience of watching PATHS OF GLORY.  There simply is no way one cannot be affected as Kubrick ensures the viewer gets as close to being a part of the action as possible.  Dolly shots are a Kubrick staple, present in all of his films, but those used in PATHS OF GLORY along the trenches as Kirk Douglas walks through are particularly striking.

Walking through the trenches
Walking through the trenches

The story depicted in PATHS OF GLORY takes place during the First World War.  French and German armies are at a stalemate, facing each other along 500 miles of fortified trenches for two years straight as the story opens.  Any attempt to advance into enemy lines results in heavy casualties.  Eager for his French Army to advance, General George Broulard (Adolph Menjou) orders General Mireau (George Macready) to take hold of “The Anthill,” a German position that’s within view of the French Army, but is impenetrable.  Mireau recognizes the insurmountable task the men under his command are being asked to perform, more so due to the fact that Broulard has given him just two days to achieve the objective.  But the prospect of getting more stars on his uniform is overwhelming to Mireau and any concern regarding casualties to his men is little more than a ruse.

The Generals discuss the offensive
The Generals discuss the offensive

A now determined General Mireau visits the trenches to advise Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) that he will be leading the charge.  Dax knows this is a doomed offensive, but has no option but to follow orders.  The day of the attack arrives and before long it is halted without much of an advance in what is in essence a suicide mission.  The devastating loss of life – shot with stark realism – allows for no advance toward The Anthill.  General Mireau watches with alarm from the trenches, safe from enemy fire, but outraged by his perception that his men are nothing but cowards.  Desperate to force the fighting men forward, the man orders the French artillery unit to fire on their own men.  That order is not obeyed, however, and his mission is a failure.  To save face Mireau orders three men be made examples of, one from each company must be executed for cowardice.  An outraged Col. Dax requests to serve as defense for the three men ultimately chosen, each in a different, but equally absurd manner, just as real-life war chooses those who die absurdly in a way.  It’s not surprising that the military tribunal that follows is a farce adding further insult to the absurdity of war and its politics, which is brought to a boil – in me – with the casual pinch to a man’s cheek as he’s strapped into a cot, which is tied to a pole facing the firing squad.

No words
No words

Whether the institution or those under its command get what they deserve in PATHS OF GLORY is (I suppose) for everyone to determine.  I can say it does not occur in a public display or attrition, which I always hope for, but which would no doubt reduce the film to my level.  A true act of cowardice seen early in the film is treated similarly.  So clearly Kubrick’s intention was not to allow us even a moment of satisfaction in that regard.  What he held dearest as far as telling this story are the visuals and he pulls no punches there making PATHS OF GLORY a cinematic experience and an absolute must-see.  While this film is often difficult to watch it also renders you unable to look away.  Aside from Kubrick one must also credit cinematographer Georg Kraus for his outstanding photography and an exceptional cast led by Kirk Douglas whose natural intensity is perfect for this film and story.

Douglas and Kubrick
Douglas and Kubrick

PATHS OF GLORY may well be my favorite Stanley Kubrick film although I really like his directorial debut effort, THE KILLING (1955), which preceded PATHS.  I find several of Kubrick’s subsequent films too long and PATHS OF GLORY is the opposite – despite those often excruciatingly real long shots previously mentioned, the film is tight and goes by in a flash, culminating in an odd way with a scene that I’m pretty sure I don’t get, but that is nonetheless touching.  The men are in a nightclub on repose from the fighting and a young, captured German woman is forced to sing a song.  Jeers soon turn into a chorus of humming and tears start to flow as cruelty dissipates into grief.  I guess the point is to remind us of the humanity at stake in war.  The young German woman is played by Christiane Harlan who would become Stanley Kubrick’s wife until his death in 1999.  This is a small part, but Harlan and the scene are memorable.

PATHS OF GLORY is based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, who used a real-life event from WWI as the basis for his story.  That event was the random execution of four corporals of the French 136th Regiment to set examples for others following a failed attack against a hill near Souain in Champagne.  Cobb’s novel, not surprisingly, has experienced a resurgence since Kubrick’s film was released, a film that has also gained in stature through the years.

PATHS OF GLORY was made thanks in large part to Kirk Douglas who facilitated its funding.  The film was critically acclaimed, but not well received by audiences in 1957 and it would be banned in France for nearly 20 years due to its damning portrayal of a French officer.  But, despite two box office disappointments in a row – THE KILLING and PATHS – Kubrick was front and center in the mind of all that was Hollywood at the time.  In a 1958 interview with CBC radio, Kubrick said, “Hollywood offers the best opportunity and possibilities for young people.”  He was specifically referring to the upheaval the insurgence of television caused for the film industry in the 1950’s.  In order to prove itself outstanding and unique, Hollywood was offering ways for young filmmakers to make their mark.  Although Kubrick would encounter countless problems with censors and many others in the film industry, he did not conform to either filmgoers or critics and as a result the mark he made was often unique.  PATHS OF GLORY left one of those unique and indelible Kubrick marks, ultimately becoming a standard in the depiction of war on film.


This is my entry to the World War One in Classic Film, a historical blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently and Silent-ology.  Please visit the host sites to read many more entries on films and WWI in this centennial remembrance.


30 thoughts

  1. I didn’t realize this film was banned in France for 20 years. Wow! They really took it seriously, didn’t they?

    I agree that this is a Must-Watch Film. It’s brilliant, and I love that Kirk Douglas helped to fund and starred in it.

    Great review, Aurora! You’ve done this film justice.

    1. I thought the France banning incident was going a bit far, but then again the way this film is shot is documentary-like so heaven knows – people probably believed it all. ALTHO, irony is that it WAS based on a true story.

      Thanks, Ruth!

  2. I agree–one of Kubrick’s best. Some of his later films tend toward excess, but this is a strong story persuasively told. I wish he had made more films like it and (my favorite Kubrick) SPARTACUS.

    1. AGREE, Rick. I’m about to discuss a Kubrick film I really dislike and am having a difficult time explaining why. All I can come up with is it has none of the elements present in this one. His later work is just not my cup of tea.


  3. Spot on, Aurora. Kubrick is one of my favorite filmmakers, and “Paths of Glory” one of his greatest works. Looking at the poster at the top, I’d say that “Paths” is in that minority of films that lives up to every word of its hype. (A German-speaking friend of mine told me that the song at the end, “The Faithful Hussar”, is an old folk song about a woman who is unsure of whether her sweetheart will return to her after the war.)

    1. I agree with all you say and it’s true that this one lives up to and surpasses the hype. I didn’t make a note of any spoilers in the post b/c it’s impossible to have an inkling of what you will feel about this one until you experience it. Thanks for the info on the song. 🙂


  4. Great article. It’s films like this that help us realize what the soldiers had to go through 100 years ago. Thank you so much for taking part in our blogathon!

  5. I’m glad you wrote about this movie, which is an old favorite. You can’t blame the French for banning it, since it gave a good idea of the butcher-like qualities of the French generals. I can’t remember the exact words of Menjou’s description of the planned attack, how so many per cent would be killed at each stage, but there would be enough left at the end to hold the position. I recently reread Hew Strachan’s “The First World War”: “of 629 soldiers condemned to death between May and October 1917, only 43 were executed.” Only? Thanks for sharing this with us.

  6. I know you said this film is impossible to write about, but I think this is a wonderful review and I’m so happy it’s been included in the blogathon. I’ve only seen it once as it had such an effect on me; a shame as I agree it’s one of Kubrick’s finest. The word masterpiece is overused, but I think this film is certainly worthy of the label.

  7. Another wonderful review, thanks so much for contributing it, Aurora. Some movies deal with wounds that are just too fresh, even 40 years after the fact, but they are still important and deserve to be seen, not banned. You made your case for this film marvelously.

  8. I’m actually a fan of Kubrick’s work save for the “What am I watching?” oddity of Eyes Wide Shut (which just seems… unfinished and I didn’t care for the leads at all), but I’ll have to say PoG is in my top films ever list because it’s so relentless and about as perfect a war/anti-war film as it gets. I keep meaning to do a review, but it’s such a body wrenching movie to sit through that I can’t come up with proper words other than SEE IT.

    1. I really disliked Eyes Wide Shut! And SEE IT is really the only commentary worthy of this movie. I agree. I chose it for this blogathon and then was faced with the task to try to comment on it, but one could never do it justice. Thanks for your comments.


  9. My husband and I watched Paths of Glory last month for the first time-excellent film and it did cause me to do a bit of research, as you mentioned, it was based on a true event that happened in the French Army during WWI. There is a term for it in the military, when random soldiers are chosen to be shot in order to convince the others not to resort to running away during a battle. Other armies in history have used this method too, but thankfully not anymore! I am not a huge Kubrick fan but this movie is one of his best, imho and it does move at a fast pace. I enjoyed your review of it.

    1. Thanks, Jenni. I’m sure all sorts of disgusting, dehumanizing tactics have been used by the military the world over to teach lessons. I’m glad I know of few of those. Just this one is awful enough.


  10. Wonderful analysis. I liked The Killing too (what did you think of the name of the film btw?) but Paths is my favourite. The story is so fascinating, and the directing, lightening and seemingly simple set design further expresses it.

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