Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar film Paths of Glory stands out in many ways.
To start, it features Kirk Douglas (and a whole slew of other American and non-French actors) playing key members of the French military in the early 1900’s. That alone must send some kind of message. They don’t fake accents…they don’t even try. Kubrick’s very American French war film is strong enough quality to propel this film.
Kubrick’s message is alive and strong in what might be his best film. His criticism of the machine of war, no matter what the country is (perhaps that is what he was trying to express by having Americans in the roles of French officers, generals and soldiers), is that it is a painful, dark and dehumanizing robotic force.
There are very few identifiable members of this particular regiment. Typically in war films, whether they have an agenda or not, you are introduced to a group or platoon of soldiers, maybe more, that often take on a life of their own. They become engrossed characters. Here, we are introduced to very few by name. They few that we do get to know in a limited fashion become important, but not important enough. Kubrick’s aim and goal, which he succeeds at, is to show how little value the human life is given in war. These are walking deads. Heaps of flesh and bones. They are enlisted and designed to die in the battle.
As we watch the men head out to battle on an impossible mission to take a pivotal hill from the Germans, we are engrossed in the cinematography and the haunting beauty Kubrick pushes at us. We don’t care about the men dying quick deaths in a meaningless battle. Why? Because Kubrick’s message is that the commanding officers who sent these men into battle didn’t care about the men either. So why should we?
Paths of Glory introduces its main challenge about halfway through the film. The general who commanded this impossible mission is upset at the supposed lack of courage being shown by the men. The ones who rush into battle die or fall back, the rest don’t even leave the trench. He orders three soldiers, one from each regiment, to be arrested and given trial for cowardice. The three men are sentenced to execution.
You’ve noticed so far I haven’t even mentioned a single characters name. What’s a name mean in war? What commands power is the title. And the ones with the most power are calling the shots and whether they are right or wrong the shots they call stand. Kubrick shows us the pure evils of war that are hidden on ONE side of the trench. We don’t even meet the Germans. We see death in battle, but we see more brutal death between one side. Only in war could you punish one another with death.
The war machine in Paths of Glory cannot be stopped. As much as Kubrick would like it to, he lets it run its course to prove a point about the selfishness, brutality and darkness of humanity. While we dehumanize war in this film, we also characterize humans through their carelessness for the lives they devalue. It’s a whirlwind.
In fact, Kubrick has no key women acting in the film. Sure, there are some dancing at a dinner party, but until the very end of the film, when a captured German woman sings a tune for the French soldiers, no woman is featured. Her song, despite being in German, captures the emotions of the men. They hum along and tears stream down some of their faces. It’s the lasting image in a strong, beautiful yet dark film from Stanley Kubrick which is perhaps the best one he ever made.