Paths of Glory (1957)

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Considered by many (not me) to be Stanley Kubrick’s first great film,”Paths of Glory,”based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of the same title, is set during World War I.

As an anti-war film, it is as intellectually harrowing and emotionally effective, though more complex, than Lewis Milestone’s 1930 Oscar-winner, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (about the futility of WWWI, as seen from the perspective of German soldiers).
Co-penned by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and novelist Jim Thompson, this highly intelligent tale follows a French army unit ordered on an impossible mission by their superiors. In fact, the social class disparity between officers and rank-and-file soldiers is at the center of the epic saga, which deals unsparingly with the politics and business of conducting a major war.
The tale begins in September 1916, centering on the weary 701st Infantry Regiment, now decimated by months of brutal battle. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a humanist officer (in peacetime he was a criminal lawyer) who tries to prevent the soldiers’ execution in an impossible mission assigned to them.
Who’s in charge? Behind the frontlines, at a rand chateau serving as headquarters, General Mireau (George Macready), the division commander, is visited by the fake and pretentious General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the corps commander representing the General Staff. Broulard tells Mireau that his division must take the Ant Hill, an impregnable German fortress, within the next 48 hours. 
At first, Mireau voices his opposition, claiming that the mission is impossible, but he is easily persuaded by promises for promotion if he obeys orders. Later, when Dax potests the mission with justifiable anger, Mireau threatens to relieve him of his command, whereupon he accepts the mission; Dax feels that he can’t desert the men who have known and respected him for a long time.
As a result of the mission’s failure, three innocent soldiers are charged with cowardice and sentenced to death, allegedly as an example to the troops, but actually serving as scapegoats for the failings of their commanders.
At the time, “Paths of Glory” was praised for its precise, unsentimental, spare, and unvarnished depiction of combat in stark black-and-white cinematography by George Krause.  Visually, the film is more starkly realistic than other American war pictures, depicting in graphic detail the lives of common soldiers in the trenches. The impressive tracking shots of life within the depressing trenches are contrasted with circular shots of the baroue chateau.
Though critically acclaimed by most reviewers when first released, the film was not a commercial success. Nonetheless, it established Kubrick as a major filmmaker. Moreoevr, “Paths of Glory” has continuoulsyly been shown on TV, film clubs, and university courses, and many young American directors (such as Spielberg) have expressed their admiration and have been influenced by this work.
Provocative and controversial, this film was banned from showing in Franfe for 18 years due to its alleged “anti-military” and anti-government” attitudes. This was the first time that a major movie chronicled the callousness of the French officers in deploying their troops against the enemy, and the calculated losses (in terms of specific percentages), which was as chily and frightening as watching a bloody combat.
During the production of “Paths of Glory” in Munich, Kubrick met the young German actress Chrisiane Harlan (credited by her stage name, “Susanne Christian”), who played the only female part in the film. Their marriage lasted until Kubrick’s death, in 1999.
Star Kirk Douglas, who was also instrumental in securing financing for the ambitious production, would hire Kubrick to direct “Spartacus,” after firing the original director, Anthony Mann.
Cast
Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas)
Col. Paris (Ralph Meeker)
General Boulard (Adolphe Menjou)
General Mireau (George Macready)
Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris)
Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson)
Private Arnoud (Joseph Turkel)
Private Ferol (Timothy Carey)
Col. Judge (Peter Capell)
German Girl (Susanne Christian)
 
Running time: 86 Minutes