War On Film: Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory' is at once a masterful anti-war epic and an expression of true patriotism and duty.  

"Due to this collar, I will never
have children."
In only two hours it manages to encapsulate the full spectrum of horror regarding combat battle and the ruthless, counterproductive politics behind the war machine.  Set during WWI surrounding trench warfare between France and Germany, the film is loosely based on the true story of a Regiment Colonel's (Kirk Douglas, in arguably his greatest role) efforts to defend three soldiers wrongfully indicted with charges of cowardice, picked at random as an example to the regiment for failing to seize a German position known as 'the Anthill' in order to deflect attention from the court marshall's own order to the regimen to fire upon his own squad.  While filled with sweeping vistas of warfare set deep in the trenches, the real battles are fought in court concerning innocent soldiers needlessly sent to death for the reckless egos of their superiors.

An early indication of the impeccable technical quality of Kubrick, 'Paths of Glory' contains some of the cleanest, most beautifully photographed sequences of combat ever lensed.  Films like Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' and its D-Day sequences clearly took note of the intercutting between wide shots of armies charging ahead into a barrage of bullets and explosions and close-ups of grimy faces of men huddled together in the trenches.  

"Ok. When I blow this whistle,
you idiots run in to oncoming fire
so I don't have to. Got it?"
Kubrick's symmetrical use of perspective, medium shots and his sharp, clinical editing is as fully developed and pristine as the footage of his later world-famous efforts such as '2001: A Space Odyssey', 'Clockwork Orange', and his 2nd anti-war epic, “Full Metal Jacket”. Kubrick's perfectionism also began to bloom with 'Paths of Glory', as stories of veteran actor Adolphe Menjou losing his temper over being asked for repeat takes by the director, albeit a precursor to Kubrick's request that Scatman Crothers explain the process of 'shining' to actor Danny Lloyd 148 times for 'The Shining'. 

The anger Kubrick's tragedy fills his viewers with is palpable, with its obvious hypocrisy regarding the unfair trial of innocent men's lives as convenient coverage for their superior's own infractions.  Less about war itself than the personified images of those purporting to fight it, it's an indictment of the war machine sacrificing the lives of the innocent in order to fulfill their own reputation.  For years, due to its portrait of the French General command, the film was withheld from release in France until the mid 1970s. Only during the film's symbolic finale when a German woman (Kubrick's future wife, Christiane Kubrick) sings a children's folk song to a drunk and rowdy regimen after the execution does the film's anti-war language become universal and clear.  While war is a ruthless meat grinder devouring nearly all who participate in it, it's the battles fought behind closed doors that are the most vicious and deeply haunting.

-Andrew Kotwicki