Paths of Glory (1957): Notes on Kubrick’s Film

Dore Schary of MGM offered Kubrick and Harris $75,000 to write, direct, and produce a film that ultimately became Paths of Glory.

Paths of Glory, set during World War I, is based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 antiwar novel, which Kubrick had read while waiting in his father’s office.

Schary was familiar with the novel, but he stated that MGM would not finance another war picture, given their backing of the 1951 anti-war film, The Red Badge of Courage (1951).

After Schary was fired by MGM in a major shake-up, Kubrick and Harris managed to interest Kirk Douglas in playing Colonel Dax.

The film follows a French army unit ordered on an impossible mission, and follows with a war trial of three soldiers, arbitrarily chosen, for misconduct. Dax is assigned to defend the men at Court Martial.

For the battle scene, Kubrick meticulously lined up six cameras one after the other along the boundary of no-man’s land, with each camera capturing a specific field and numbered. He gave each of the hundreds of extras a number for the zone in which they would die. Kubrick himself operated an Arriflex camera for the battle, zooming in on Douglas.

Paths of Glory became Kubrick’s first commercial success, and established him as an up-and-coming young filmmaker.

Critics praised the film’s unsentimental, spare, and unvarnished combat scenes and its raw, black-and-white cinematography.

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: “The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick’s sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die.”

Despite the praise, the Christmas release date was criticized, and the subject was controversial in Europe.

The film was banned in France until 1974 for its “unflattering” depiction of the French military, and was censored by the Swiss Army until 1970.