Paths of Glory - 1957
Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (screenplay) / Humphrey Cobb (novel)
Cinematography by: George Krause
Editor(s): Eva Kroll
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris and Richard Anderson
Part of my goal with the Classic Tuesday section of my website is to showcase the pathways and techniques created by visionaries and the unique storytelling from the “glory” days of Hollywood. The other is to "check mark" the countless films I've said to myself that I wanted to watch. While I praise Stanley Kubrick as a director, I've only seen four movies out of his credited thirteen. So how about we talk about his 1957 WW1 film, Path of Glory.
The story takes place in 1916 on the French front of World War 1. Years before the Americans entered the war. General Mireau (Macready) is given the orders to attack a German post known as the Anthill, despite the lack of men and weakness of their position, the French army wants to proceed. The outcome will be the loss of thousands of lives. General Mireau gives the order to Colonel Dax (Douglas). The battle goes as expected, with the French troops pinned down in the trenches from the suppressing German firepower. Despite Colonel Dax best efforts to rally his troops they cannot move past their trenches. This is seen as a sign of cowardice in the eyes of General Mireau and he wants to put his soldiers on the firing squadron for their actions. Colonel Dax decides to defend his squad in the face of the lust for blood from his commanding officers.
I apologize for the long summary, but there is so much going on during this tight 1hr and 26min epic drama. The way it starts of as a grand war epic, and it shifts towards a quasi-court drama, with both genres carrying the horror and the inhumane nature of war, was masterfully done. How soldiers are a "casualty of war" with the ends justifying the means, is a theme explored continuously. I've heard critics describe this film as humanistic, and that is the best way to sum up, Kubrick's script (based on a novel - the novel based on real events). Kubrick is not interested in what the French are fighting for and why they are in this conflict with the Germans. The script focuses on the effects of war on the soldiers, and how they are stripped of their rights and humanity in favor of victory.
The best example of this is the closing scene after the executions take place. We see a captive German woman brought to the barracks, for "entertainment." The soldiers are screaming and hollering at her, seeing a woman for the first time in a long time. You as an audience member sit-back waiting for the horrible to happen, the expected, another side of the ugliness of war. The woman starts singing, through tears, a folk song full of emotions, and the soldiers see in her what they feel, the fear, the sadness and the loneliness of war. A silence falls over the barracks, and they start to openly weep and sing along with her.
During my quick research regarding this film, I was blown away to find out that Kubrick was twenty-nine years old during filming. He pulled off multiple long takes that any director would kill to have in their films. The long takes of the French rushing the battlefield, with the various extras and explosions going off sporadically in between them. The steady-cam walkthroughs of the trenches are my favorite. The first performed by General Mireau taking count of his soldiers, making sure everyone is ready for the carnage ahead. The second by Colonel Dax making his way to his position before running out into the battlefield. Both have the complexity of bombs going off mid sentences, extras looking gloom and frighten and the main actors putting a brave face for their men to see.
All of this is elevated by crisp tight editing by Eva Kroll, as there is not a single ounce of fat in the runtime and by the beautiful black and white cinematography of Georg Krause. With an excellent heart-pounding score by Gerald Fried to boot.
Path of Glory is a unique war film. While it doesn't shy away from the ever-cinematic battles of the wars with incredible long takes, its primary focus is the effects of the war and the abuse of power portrayed through a courtroom drama. Kirk Douglas shines as the Colonel fighting for the lives of his men, and his face covered in mud during the battle scenes is heartbreaking, as he knows he failed his men. I'm more than glad I finally watched this film, as it did not disappoint. Currently available on Prime, go watch it.
Path of Glory is Why I Love Movies.
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