Stanley Kubrick’s first true masterpiece is his 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory. It’s an examination of the stark difference between the French soldiers & officers doing battle in the trenches of France during World War I, and the big brass conducting the war. Every aspect of their lives are perpendicular: Their military roles; where & how they live; what they eat; their daily routines; their hopes & dreams; even how they entertain themselves. “I’m a coward but I still can’t understand these armchair officers fighting a war from behind a desk while their soldiers dig paths of glory that lead to their grave”.
Though set in World War I, Paths of Glory can be applied to any war. And it’s probably no coincidence that it was released during America’s roll-up to the Vietnam War. The story centers around the 701st Regiment’s mission to retake The Anthill from German control. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) & all his men know the mission is suicidal. However, General Mireau (George Macready) has been promised another Star by his superior officer, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) when the The Anthill is secured. Mireau’s evil goes beyond mere ambition: In a classic scene that is both taken from the life of General George S. Patton & mirrored by George C. Scott 13 years later in Franklin J. Schaffner’s film, Mireau slaps a Shell-Shocked Soldier (Fred Bell) then expels him from the Regiment, claiming that no such condition really exists. I am not familiar with Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name from which the screenplay was adapted so I’m not certain of the genealogy of the scene: Was it part of the 1935 book which Patton read?; or, as I suspect, did Stanley have this added into the screenplay to make Mireau all the more sadistic & force the viewer to confront the duality in the personality of one of America’s great military leaders. Among the plethora of the other excellent performances in the motion picture are: Timothy Carey as Private Ferol, 1 of 3 soldiers selected as examples for the Regiment’s inability to take The Anthill; Wayne Morris as the drunken Lieutenant Roget; and Susanne Christian, the only female in the movie, who performs an amazing version of the German folk dirge The Faithful Hussar at the end of the picture. Her real name at the time was Christiane Harlan. She & Stanley first met on the set and within a year he divorced his second wife to marry her. They stayed together until he died in 1999. Her brother, Jan, directed the documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.
Kubrick’s only Oscar in 13 nominations came in 1969 for Best Visual Effects for our next movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Paths of Glory received no Oscar nominations, but was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992. It was the first of 2 films on which he worked with Kirk Douglas. On the other, Spartacus, Douglas both starred & was Executive Producer. The Executive Producer, or EP, of a movie: Provides and/or secures its financing; initiates its development; and hires the Producers who control the budget, then usually moves on to another project. But on Spartacus, EP Douglas: Fired Director Anthony Mann; had Kubrick brought in to replace him; and continued influencing the production through its release. Since Kubrick insisted on total control of his films, they never worked together again. But they did get along well enough in Paths of Glory to make movie magic together. I’ve added an unofficial trailer that includes the Shell Shocked SOldier scene below. Waddaya say you watch it then head over to your local library & borrow a copy? At just 88 minutes, it’s a short piece, particularly for Kubrick. 4 Stars!