Paths of Glory (1957) Directed by Stanley Kubrick Premiered in Munich, West Germany on Sept. 18, 1957 Opened in U.S. on Dec. 20, 1957 BACKGROUND Actor Kirk Douglas championed the long-dormant script for this film to the United Artists studio, which director Stanley Kubrick brought to him after MGM turned it down. Douglas agreed to […]
Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Premiered in Munich, West Germany on Sept. 18, 1957
Opened in U.S. on Dec. 20, 1957
Actor Kirk Douglas championed the long-dormant script for this film to the United Artists studio, which director Stanley Kubrick brought to him after MGM turned it down. Douglas agreed to make the film under his own company, Bryna Productions, with a budget of about $1 million. Writer Humphrey Cobb wrote the original story as a novel in 1935, adapted from real events, and director Stanley Kubrick (just 28 at the time but directing his fourth feature film) wrote the screenplay with the help of Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham. Douglas had already aligned himself with left-wing causes through fighting the Hollywood blacklist in the ‘50s, while this endeavor would mark Kubrick’s first successful film with an anti-war message (his first feature, Fear and Desire in 1953, was set in a fictional war but was little seen, while he would go on to greater acclaim with Dr. Strangelove  and Full Metal Jacket ).
The story is set in 1916 at the height of the war, with the Allies dug in along the Western Front, unable to forbear the encroaching Germans after two years of intense fighting. Douglas plays Colonel Dax, the commander of the 701st Infantry Regiment of the French Army. General Mireau (George Macready), an ambitious low general hoping for a promotion, accepts a proposal from his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to attack a heavily fortified German position known as the Anthill, a suicide mission that Mireau accepts because he can futility of the operation.
The bloody battle ensues, with the French soldiers failing to reach any of the German trenches. In order to save face, Mireau randomly selects three surviving soldiers whom he can condemn for his catastrophe. Dax himself survives after trying valiantly to engage his troops in the skirmish, and then volunteers to defend the three accused scapegoats because he is also a civilian lawyer. The kangaroo court-martial of the polius that follows is shamefully stacked against the defendants. Their prosecution on dereliction of duty charges exposes greater cowardice among the military hierarchy than the enlisted men, who are summarily sentenced to execution.
RELATION TO HISTORY
Even though Humphrey Cobb admitted his story was fictional, it clearly borrowed from some real events in World War I. The character of Mireau must be based on General Géraud Réveilhac, who, like Mireau in the film, ordered his own troops to be fired upon when they would not advance from their trenches to take a German position on March 7, 1915 in Souain. Thirty men were tried for cowardice; four corporals were found guilty and executed. The film has us believe that Mireau is eventually punished for his cruel irresponsibility; in reality, Réveilhac was eventually made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. One of the corporals’ widows and another’s sister pursued justice for the men, and a French court cleared their names in 1934, when Réveilhac was 83. He died in 1937.
The film was shot in post-WWII West Germany, and largely staged in and around Schleissheim Palace near Munich. Its gritty black-and-white style effectively illustrates the desolation and desperation of trench warfare, as well as the cold cruelty put upon the accused soldiers. Kurbrick’s use of mobile shots in the battle scenes, particularly in the trenches, was captivating for audiences not yet accustomed to the up-close moving shots made possible with the steadicam two decades later.
The French government did not receive the film well, and held it from release in the country until 1975 for unspecified but clearly political reasons; the German government also restricted the film’s release, but for only two years. The appalling division between officers and men is highlighted in the story, as is the abuse of power and exploitation of policies by superiors.
An easy criticism of the film is its use of then-traditional Hollywood acting styles thatrendered the European characters very American. As The New York Times reported in its review on Dec. 26, 1957:
The filmmakers made a damaging mistake in playing it in colloquial English,with American accents and attitudes, while studiously making it look as much as possible like a document of the French Army in World War I. The illusion of reality is blown completely whenever anybody talks. (Bosley Crowther)
Paths of Glory was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1992, a collection of films deemed historically valuable perpetuity in their archives.