This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.
“ … The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave …”
— Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
What Gray is doing in his elegy here is a courageous move for any artist: reminding the reader that all earthly glory, all pleasure and decadence contained in physical life, are little more but diversions and distractions on one’s journey towards death. It fundamentally questions the act of writing itself — in fact, it seemingly questions just about everything, running the risk of inching ever closer towards an all-encompassing nihilism.
Even so, there is an undeniable power in these lines. The blade of this poem cuts both ways: it may hurt to realize the transience of all earthly things, but it’s a realization that can liberate just as easily. It calls into question all the trappings of power, of success, and it emphasizes the value of human life over all other considerations.
There’s an oft-trafficked quote from François Truffaut about how no truly “anit-war” movie could ever actually be made: the medium of cinema neuters violence, replaces it with carefully administered doses of adrenaline, and gives us heroes to root for on top of it all — it turns war into an exercise in amusement. It’s an insight I largely agree with, and one that more filmmakers should keep in mind when portraying acts of horror onscreen.
Interestingly enough, the quote is actually a kind-of paraphrase of a casual interview Truffaut had with Gene Siskel in November 1973, an interview on many subjects, namely cinematic violence and Stanley Kubrick, to which Siskel added the following addendum:
“In Paths of Glory, which so many people consider the strongest antiwar film ever made, the film doesn’t so much condemn war as the French government that thought it necessary to sacrifice its soldiers. War isn’t hell; it’s just the men who run them are frequently hellish. And every war film, just like every war, has its heroes, and that, too, seems to cut across any antiwar sentiment. As Truffaut said, it makes violence ambiguous.”
There’s no doubt that film necessarily makes violence ambiguous — Paths of Glory’s stupendous no man’s land sequence near the beginning showcases this phenomenon just a few minutes into the movie—but both Siskel and Truffaut are making an interesting move here: the conflation of war with violence.
War, at least of the course of the last several centuries, has been a far cry from unfettered violence: it’s a brutally clinical exercise in statecraft; the continuation of politics by other means, as put by Clausewitz . The horror of war is not necessarily the physical violence itself; it’s the manipulation of human bodies themselves in the name of diplomatic achievement. I could suffer a violent death at any hour of the day—only during times of war would my violent death be considered part and parcel of my responsibility as a citizen.
If we are to see this—the alchemizing of human beings into tools which might suffer in the name of nationhood—as the true horror of war, then there is no film more anti-war than Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory was Kubrick’s fourth feature, but it was no major shift in tone for the budding director. It’s difficult not to see the movie as a successor to Kubrick’s debut, the technically haphazard but conceptually strong Fear and Desire—a movie that carefully tracks the debilitating effects that a wartime environment can have on the individuals contained therein.
For Paths of Glory, however, Kubrick zoomed out in a big way. The main character is Dax, a highly-respected and Kirk Douglas-played colonel in the French army during World War I. Whereas Fear and Desire showcased the psychological impact that war has on its lowliest participants (a subject that Paths of Glory admittedly broaches on in an early scene), this film gives its audience a look into what conflict is like for those at both the top and the bottom.
The film begins with General Broulard demanding that General Mireau take “the anthill,” a well-defended German outpost on the other side of the French position. Mireau initially rebuffs this request, clear-headedly citing the immense loss of life that such a maneuver would incur. Upon Broulard’s mention of a potential promotion for Mireau should he complete this task successfully, the ambitious general suddenly decides that taking the anthill isn’t so difficult a task after all.
Enter Dax, whose regiment is forced to turn back to the trench during the anthill assault and retreat after suffering impossibly heavy fire at the hands of the Germans. Mireau is so incensed at the fallback that he orders Dax’s men to be shelled by artillery, a request that is denied — but just barely. The attack was a failure, and Mireau demands blood as recompense. After consulting with Dax and Broulard, a compromise is reached: three of Dax’s soldiers will face a court martial for cowardice, with the penalty for such a crime being death.
The rest of the film, while compelling crafted by the young Kubrick, is not difficult to predict in its arc: the three randomly-chosen soldiers, something of a misfit trio, are all found guilty and are shot to death by a firing squad. After the fact, Dax manages to prove to Broulard that Mireau illegally command the artillery fire on his men, thus leading to a court martial for the villainous general. Dax goes on a bit of a rampage at the immorality of the army’s practices, and the movie ends.
What do we, as an audience, get from this? Surely every viewer understands that the circumstances were unfortunate: the command to attack the anthill was flawed, as was the penalty incurred thereafter. We appreciate Dax’s sense of justice for his men and are incensed that he cannot do more to save them. All of these lessons, while not invaluable, are far from insightful or novel when it comes to war films.
What Kubrick gives us here that so few other films do (even today) is a real, tangible sense of the life that war extinguishes. The three men condemned to death are truly random in their makeup; the one exception is Philippe Paris, a young solider who was forced to stand trial after he (correctly) accused his commanding officer of negligence the night before the attack. All of the men handle their fate differently: Paris takes his fate with equanimity, Private Arnaud drinks and fights himself into a coma the night before he’s executed, and Private Ferol, who previously had seemed to handle it all relatively well, breaks down once he realizes that he’ll never again experience real contact with a woman.
It’s all deeply affecting in exactly the way we expect it to be: these men were drafted to die, essentially. It hurts to see the innocent suffer for no greater reason than chance — though Kubrick executes the film immaculately, this is still a theme relatively easy to come by. In the years following Paths of Glory, movies all the way from The Thin Red Line to Platoon to Henry V mourned the undeserved deaths of war; what makes Kubrick’s efforts so uniquely successful are precisely what made Gene Siskel think the movie a failure: its focus on the men on top.
After Dax exposes Mireau’s actions to Broulard, we get a brief sense that justice approaches: Broulard threatens Mireau with a court martial and sees that Dax is likely the only honest man in this whole situation. This is how many such films would end: tragedy struck two-thirds of the way through, but the Good Man prevailed before the credits rolled. Such a film could not be considered anti-war in any reasonable way. Condemning the actions of individuals in an environment specifically designed to promote and facilitate mass violence is hardly a political statement; it’s bathos disguised as parable.
Kubrick, however, has something else up his sleeve: Broulard complements Dax on his canny thinking, implying that Dax has orchestrated this whole thing in the hopes of taking Mireau’s position. Dax lashes out at Broulard, who then upbraids Dax for moralizing and idealism. As he storms out, Dax is informed that he’s been ordered to return to the front alongside his men. The “hellish” man has been removed; the hellish system continues on.
What makes Paths of Glory such an effective anti-war film is that it never tries to be an anti-violence film. The spare combat scenes in the movie are thrilling; they feel heroic and important in the same way that those in so many well-made war films do. But by thirty minutes into the film, they’re all over. We get no more thrills, only a look into the decrepit, ugly machinery that powers all of this combat in the first place. All audiences are desensitized to onscreen violence, but the ugly injustices of bureaucracy are a kind of violence that cinema somehow makes even sharper.
We feel Dax’s frustration, we feel the impotent desperation of the soldiers sent to die for no reason. We feel hopeless in the knowledge that all of this is avoidable, but none of it can be circumvented. Kubrick has compressed a whole system of military mismanagement and moral corruption into a film that doesn’t even pass the 90 minute mark.
War is not made by soldiers—though they certainly suffer the consequences—it’s made by those who decide that it should happen in the first place and those who decide to keep it going. An anti-war film doesn’t show the horrors of violence as Truffaut thinks it does; it shows the horrors of the institutions that make war happen.
As Dax leaves his final meeting with Broulard, he passes by a tavern containing his surviving men. A captured German girl is forcibly brought onstage to sing, though her voice is barely audible over the abusive howls and jibes of the men watching her. It’s an emotionally jarring sequence; after spending so much time focusing on the trials undergone by these men, we suddenly see them funnel cruelty onto an innocent young woman.
As her voice becomes more audible, however, a change comes over the crowd: the girl sings her song, and the soldiers listen. All are affected; some begin to cry. For this moment—and it is just a moment—the soldiers are not soldiers but men, boys. They’ve been reminded of their humanity, their capacity to feel. Dax sees this. He knows he should tell them they’re to return to the front immediately, but he declines to do so. Against all odds, they’ve managed to remove themselves from the dehumanizing effects of military life for a fleeting instant — this isn’t something to be interrupted.
The opposite of war is people. War is not men fighting one another; it’s nations fighting nations, sometimes companies fighting companies. Lost in the shuffle is the individual, the person moved and shaken by it all. Paths of Glory spends most of its runtime dissecting how these institutions play around with life, but it finishes with a graceful reminder of how humanity persists even through the worst of it.
If paths of glory lead to the grave, then glory should be redefined. Glory is not having one’s life decimated in the name of a protecting a faceless power nor is it being given medals and commendations at the cost of human life. Glory is sitting in a tavern and being moved by the sound of another’s voice, the capacity to share beauty and comfort in a time when such qualities are few.