One of the most powerful and memorable war films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is not so much an indictment of war and the military, but more of a critical look at the abuses of justice by those who hold the power of authority.
The film is set in France, 1916, during World War I, in an often ferocious and bloody war between France and Germany. Driven by the promise of a promotion, the insensitive and insanely patriotic General Paul Mireau (George Macready) orders Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead a small battalion into an impossible mission where they are to take possession a key position held by the Germans.
After the mission fails, Gen. Mireau orders three men under Dax’s command to be placed on trial for cowardice, the penalty being death by firing squad. The three men (played by Joseph Tunkel, Timothy Carey, and Ralph Meeker) deal with the prospect of their upcoming deaths in different ways, as Col. Dax – who is also a criminal attorney – prepares to defend them.
Based on the minor successful book by Humprhey Cobb, Paths of Glory contains a number of heavy moral and ethical themes, while displaying a rich eye for detail with its impressive set design and authentic looking costumes.
Athough it is one of his much earlier works, Kubrick displays masterful direction as shown in a number of key scenes, most notably a fluid tracking shot in the French trenches; a frustrating trial by fire set in a large marble room (which is caught beautifully by cinematographer Georg Krause); and a deafening action sequence that features a plethora of bombs dropped at a never ending rate, which is enhanced by Gerald Fried’s percussion heavy score.
The performances on hand are very good. Kirk Douglas brings the desired qualities of strength, honour, and intelligence to the role of Col. Dax, and George Macready serves up a sinisterly sadistic turn as the easily detestable General who delivers discipline through death, all the while with a smile on his face and patriotism in his heart.
Its simple yet heartbreaking conclusion leaves an undeniable sense of mourning for the events that has preceded it, and will linger in the souls of those who have watched this remarkable film.