Paths of Glory
The impossibility of the "anti-war" film
At first glance, it would be hard to imagine a more “anti-war” movie than Paths of Glory (1957), arguably Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece.
Based on a novel by the Canadian writer Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory is set on the Western Front of World War I. An ambitious French general named Mireau dreams of glory, should his army take an impenetrable German position known as The Anthill. Mireau assigns the impossible task to Colonel Dax, whose veteran troops are slaughtered before they get anywhere near German lines. Half those soldiers don’t even leave their trenches, prompting the infuriated Mireau to order the French artillery to fire on their comrades. That doesn’t happen, the assault fails, and the general takes vengeance on Dax’s regiment, arranging for the execution of three scapegoats to “to encourage the others.” Those who come before a rigged court-martial are entirely innocent: one is determined by lot; another is mentally unbalanced; and the third is a battle-hardened NCO chosen by an officer conniving to eliminate an eyewitness to his own cowardice. Dax, a progressive lawyer in civilian life, tries his best to defend his men — even blackmailing Mireau’s boss, General Broulard, with evidence of the artillery order — but firing squads complete their grisly assignment the next morning.
As my colleagues Barrett Fisher and Sam Mulberry discussed in a recent episode of their film podcast, Video Store, it could be argued that the fact that those soldiers aren’t rescued elevates Paths of Glory above mid-century Hollywood melodrama and helps it stand as an unflinching document of war’s irrational cruelty.
Or is it? At one point, Barrett also alluded to another auteur’s claim that Every film about war — this one very much included — ends up being pro-war.
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