Essay by Andrew Kelly published in "Cinema and The Great War"

Few speak well of the generals in the First World War: popularly seen as spectators rather than fighters, well-fed and luxuriously housed, they demanded the impossible and seemed ready to accept massive losses for minor gain. It is little wonder that such epithets as ‘blimps’ and ‘donkeys’ have been levelled at them. In his classic study of the subject Norman Dixon states:

Only the most blinkered could deny that the First World War exemplified every aspect of high-level military incompetence. For sheer lack of imaginative leadership, inept decisions, ignoring of military intelligence, underestimation of the enemy, delusional optimism and monumental wastage of human resources it has surely never had its equal.1

Dixon’s comments could well serve as a summary of Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s quintessential film about military incompetence and the brutality and slaughter it engenders. Much of the film attacks the opportunism and greed of the French High Command, though by implication it is a condemnation of all military authority. It is also a comment on class conflict as the basis of warfare. Ultimately, however, it is about humanity, illustrating the capacity of some men, even after two years of bitter conflict, to retain a belief in justice as well as a degree of empathy with the enemy.
The film opens in 1916. Two years of trench warfare and the lives of hundreds of thousands of men have resulted in stalemate on the Western Front. General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) visits the opulent château headquarters of the ambitious General Paul Mireau (George Macready) to bring orders to take the key strategic position of the Ant Hill within forty-eight hours. A veiled offer of promotion persuades Mireau to force his already exhausted and devastated men through another assault.
Mireau and his sycophantic adjutant, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), take the orders to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a battle-hardened cynic respected by his men. Dax objects to the attack and agrees only on threat of being removed for leave. That night a reconnaissance team led by the unstable alcoholic Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), Corporal Phillipe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Private Lejeune (Ken Dibbs) go into no-man’s-land. Roget sends Lejeune ahead, but becomes scared and throws a grenade. Corporal Paris, upon finding Lejeune’s smouldering body, returns to the trench and accuses Roget of murder. Roget points out the impossibility of making such an accusation against a senior officer.
Next morning the attack begins despite unfavourable weather and the lack of additional artillery and reinforcements. Dax leads the assault but hundreds are killed and he returns to the corpse-strewn trench where the second wave remains, Roget amongst them. Watching from behind the lines, a disgusted Mireau —believing his troops are cowards—orders an artillery attack on his own men, but the battery commander refuses.
After the failure, Mireau demands a court martial and insists that ten men from each company be executed for cowardice. He finally settles for three: Paris (picked by Roget to quieten him about the death of Lejeune), Private Pierre Arnaud (by lot) and Private Maurice Ferol (for being a social undesirable). Though Mireau protests, Dax is appointed defence counsel (in civilian life he is a prominent criminal lawyer). Despite previous citations— which Dax is prevented from introducing—and evidence of the men’s brave action during the assault, they are found guilty. That night a Priest (Emile Meyer) visits the men. A bitter Arnaud attacks him but his skull is fractured when he is slammed against a wall by Corporal Paris.
Dax orders a reluctant Roget to take command of the firing squad. As Roget leaves, Rousseau (the battery commander) tells Dax of Mireau’s order to fire on the trench. After obtaining further evidence Dax visits Broulard at a ball at General Mireau’s château. Broulard, shaken by Dax’s revelations, orders him to leave. The execution takes place; Roget apologies to Paris.
Broulard, Mireau and Dax then meet over breakfast. Broulard reports the accusation, forcing an indignant Mireau to walk out. Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job which he refuses vehemently. Dax returns to his room, but on the way hears cheering. Some of the men are in a tavern where they are entertained by a young German woman. At first they jeer but, as she sings, they begin to hum and cry. Dax, disgusted with the men’s initial response, is heartened and allows them a few more minutes rest before returning to the front.
Alexander Walker has described Paths of Glory as Kubrick’s graduation piece, a similar description given by Eisenstein to Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front.2 Prior to this, Kubrick had made three features and two shorts and had enjoyed a distinguished career as a photographer for Look magazine. He was still in his twenties. His first feature Fear and Desire (l953), an anti-war film about four soldiers lost behind enemy lines, was an apprentice effort and has disappeared without trace, no doubt encouraged by Kubrick who regards it with embarrassment.3 His second, Killer’s Kiss (1955), a violent thriller about a boxer in love with the wife of a dance-hall boss, received some critical acclaim. His third film, The Killing (1956), the story of a racetrack robbery brilliantly told from the viewpoints of the main characters, won widespread attention.
Amongst those impressed was Kirk Douglas who asked Kubrick if he had any other screenplays.4 Kubrick had written a script based on the novel Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb which had made a great impact on him when he had read it at the age of fourteen. Douglas loved the script and helped raise the finance. Hitherto no studio had shown any interest, claiming its lack of romance and plans to film in black and white as uncommercial. However, the participation of Douglas and his Bryna Production Company led a previously reluctant United Artists to post the budget of $900,000, of which Douglas received $350,000.5
The problem of the film’s uncommercial nature was not lost on Kubrick who wanted the film to make money. Douglas said that after the film had been approved Kubrick rewrote the script with Jim Thompson, the thriller writer (the two would share the final credit with Calder Willingham). This substituted a happy ending where the general arrives just in time to stop the execution and commutes the men’s sentence to thirty days in jail.6 Douglas rejected this and demanded a return to the original, an action vindicated for him with ‘a truly great film with a truly great theme: the insanity and brutality of war’.7 (It should be noted that Kubrick and Douglas had a stormy relationship on both Paths of Glory and Spartacus. In his autobiography Douglas describes him as a brilliant director but ‘a talented shit’.8)
Humphrey Cobb was a veteran of the Great War. He had joined a Canadian regiment in 1916 and was wounded and gassed. His novel was first published in 1935. It had received widespread pre-publication interest and was an immediate bestseller despite some reviewers casting doubt on the veracity of the events portrayed. Cobb had anticipated such criticism and ensured that references to newspaper articles covering such trials for cowardice were included in the book.9 However, having missed the classic pacifist phase in the early 1930s, Paths of Glory was quickly forgotten.
The book impressed Hollywood sufficiently to hire Cobb as a screenwriter soon after publication, though little seems to have resulted. In a September 1940 New York Times interview he said that he had spent the last five years working for high rates of pay, or not working at all. He was also bitter about Hollywood politics, and was dismayed to discover that the various anti-fascist groups he had supported were really communist fronts.10 He died in 1943.
It took twenty-two years for his novel to reach the screen. Bosley Crowther said it had ‘been a hot potato in Hollywood’11 since its original publication. The New York Times reported in late 1935 that Paramount had struggled for many months to make the picture, but feared offending the French government. They were also reluctant to make an avowedly anti-war film in a climate ‘seething with the spirit of aggressive nationalism’, sensing that even if governments and censorship boards allowed exhibition, audiences would be hostile. A suggestion was made to situate the action in the Czar’s army prior to the 1917 revolution. This compromise would have satisfied most objectors, including the Soviet government. Indeed, the New York Times felt the only opposition was likely to come from ‘such fugitive White Russians as still possess the price of a movie ticket’. The idea was shelved.12
Cobb’s book influenced William Faulkner in his screenplay for The Road to Glory (and also his later allegorical novel, A Fable). A play, written and produced by Sidney Howard, did result, but its inability to translate battle scenes to the stage led to poor reviews and it closed after twenty-three performances on Broadway. One reviewer to buck the trend was Brooks Atkinson who predicted that someday ‘the screen will seize this ghastly tale and make a work of art from it’.13
Cobb’s anti-militaristic novel is a realistic portrayal of war, sparing few of the gruesome details. It was, as Stephen Tabachnik recognised, written in cinematic terms.14 Indeed, parts of the screenplay were taken verbatim from Cobb’s work. However, there are many differences between the book and the film. In general the novel allows greater character development and, unlike a viewer of the film, the reader learns more about the poilu. A number of characters have either been discarded or combined in the film. The crucial difference is the elevation of Dax to centre stage. In the book he occupies a pivotal, but not central role (he appoints another captain—Etienne—to undertake the men’s defence at the court martial).
In addition to the many differences, Kubrick added or amended a number of important scenes, particularly following the execution at the end of the novel. First, Dax appoints Roget as captain of the firing squad in revenge for having picked Paris to face it, thus making him indirectly responsible for his death. Second, Broulard turns on Mireau for his order to fire on his own trench and orders a court of inquiry with the implication that Mireau’s career is ruined (in the book, Dax states that he knew of the order, has been arguing the point with the general for some time, but is likely to get demoted for his trouble). Third, there is the coda where the men go from the execution to the tavern.
The novel covers in considerable detail the choosing of the men for the court-martial. One divisional commander—not wishing to take part in such injustice—refuses to participate and disappears for the afternoon. Another chooses Ferol for being a social undesirable. The third is chosen by lot, though in a bizarre twist it has to be redrawn as the first choice claims his number could be either 68 or 89.
Kubrick’s additional scenes ensure that the central theme of humanity emerges. Dax is seen as a man of honour and his men are shown to move from abuse of and hatred for the enemy to empathy. Even General Broulard has the morality left to order an inquiry into Mireau. The book portrays a more bitter view. All characters are seen to be brutalised by the experience of war: Mireau asks for promotion for his reward for attacking the Pimple (Cobb’s name for the Ant Hill), rather than being offered it; Didier (Paris in the film) tries to shoot Roget whilst on patrol and, after returning, has breakfast before accusing him of Lejeune’s murder. Nowhere is the cynicism more evident than in the order to attack the Pimple. This is made on the basis of a communiqué already issued saying the target has been taken. Even Assolant (Mireau) resents this: ‘You are going to ask me to take with my bayonets what a G. H. Q. ink-slinger has already inadvertently captured at the point of his pen!’15
Paths of Glory opened in New York on Christmas Day, 1957, having already had its world première in Munich on 18 September. In general reviewers were impressed, praising its realism and the high standards achieved by the actors and production. Many were appalled with the story. Variety described it as ‘a starkly realistic recital of French army politics’.16 The Film Daily said it was a ‘Relentlessly powerful drama…. Superbly conceived and executed’.17
In contrast to this praise were the fears of many reviewers that there were limited prospects for the film as it went against prevailing trends in 1950s Hollywood. There was also some criticism that a film about the First World War was out of place in the nuclear age. Time commented: ‘made 20 years ago, [the film] might have found a sympathetic audience in a passionately pacifist period, might even have been greeted as a minor masterpiece. Made today, it leaves the spectator often confused and numb, like a moving speech in a dead language’.18
Hollis Alpert recognised, but rejected, these problems. He found the film’s message of universal relevance:

It is a wonder, in this time of unsettled conditions in the film industry, that ‘Paths of Glory’ was made at all. It has none of the elements or gimmicks in it that are supposed to be box-office. It will not be shown on a large screen; it is in black and white; and its subject, an attack on the military command mentality, can hardly be expected to have vast popularity at this time. Its war, World War I, seems like primitive combat in these days of ICBMs with hydrogen warheads. But there is never anything untimely about an appeal to the human conscience, and this ‘Paths of Glory’ makes.19

He predicted that the film would ‘take its place, in years to come, as one of the screen’s most extraordinary achievements’.20 As Gavin Lambert commented: ‘The visual contrast of, say, a “Summit” conference and a hydrogen bomb exploding on a city, is only taking Paths of Glory’s contrast of the château and the trenches a stage further.’21
The film could also be seen as a comment on the intolerance then splitting the American film and political community. Although the excesses of McCarthyism had ended by 1957, the blacklist remained in operation. In the same year as Paths of Glory, The Bridge on the River Kwai could only be released with a pseudonym for Michael Wilson the screenwriter. The year before ‘Robert Rich’ had won an Academy Award for his script for The Brave One. It was to be another three years before it was revealed that this was Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten.
Finally, Paths of Glory was released at a time when Europe was more divided than ever with the creation of new economic and military power blocs: the Warsaw Pact on the one side and NATO and the European Community on the other. With this background, and with many countries in Europe under effective military occupation, it is little wonder that the film caused such controversy in many countries outside the United States.
There were few problems with domestic censorship, although the MPPDA said that care had to be taken with the portrayal of the Priest, suggested that some profanities were removed and insisted that the woman’s blouse was not cut too low. But even this did not prove enough to stop the film being banned in United States military establishments at home and overseas.22
In Europe the film created a storm of protest, leading to censorship and bans in many cities and countries. It ran into immediate trouble in West Berlin when France threatened to withdraw from the July 1958 Berlin Film Festival were it not removed. It was eventually banned following the protests of General Gaze (who was able to invoke a clause in the four-power occupation treaty) and public disturbances by French soldiers in the British sector. The decision was condemned by German newspaper editors.23
The film’s exhibition in Brussels was also stopped following demonstrations by French veterans, although it was reinstated after students from the Free University of Belgium protested against the ban. It may have been at this stage that discussions took place between the US State Department and the French Foreign Ministry leading to the insertion of a foreword by the distributors, which stated:

This episode of the 1914–1918 war tells of the madness of certain men caught in its whirlwind. It constitutes an isolated case in total contrast with the historical gallantry of the vast majority of French soldiers, the champions of the ideal of liberty, which, since always, has been that of the French people.24

However, the film was again stopped in Brussels, this time following student protests at French policy in Algeria.
There were also problems in Switzerland. The Ministry of the Interior banned the film as ‘subversive propaganda directed at France [and] highly offensive to that nation’. There followed protests from the Swiss media, particularly when the government refused to screen the picture for journalists. It also ordered United Artists, under threat of confiscation, to export immediately all prints from the country.25 The film was not shown in Switzerland until the late 1970s.
Paths of Glory faced problems in Israel where the official film censorship board—invoking its policy of preventing exhibition of any film that ridiculed another government—placed a ban as it ‘disparaged the French Army’.26 Finally, the Australian, New Zealand and British censors ordered cuts to the shot of Lejeune’s smouldering body and extensive deletions to the execution scene.
The greatest problems for the film, not surprisingly given its subject, were reserved for France.27 The French Government was reluctant to allow films highlighting embarrassing political and historical issues, particularly in the Fifth Republic under General De Gaulle. Jim Harris, Kubrick’s co-producer, had been warned by the MPPDA in January 1957 of the likely objections of the French, though these had been dismissed as both Warner Brothers and MGM (potential production companies at that stage) were willing to take the risk. In addition, there was the possibility of a French partner in the venture.
The film—Les Sentiers de la Gloire—was regarded as undesirable by the government board of film censors. According to André Astoux, then director of the Centre National de la Cinématographie, ‘a discrete and effective act of dissuasion’ prevented it from being released, though no total ban was ever announced. By 1972 the situation had improved. After the success of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange a French arts society decided to ask for approval to show a sub-titled version. However, United Artists, seemingly following Kubrick’s advice, refused to produce the print. The film was finally released in 197528 although Variety reports that it was not seen in Paris for another three years.29
As in Brussels, the major problem for the film—in the early stages at least —seemed to be the war that the French were fighting in Algeria. It may also have been the case that it dredged up nightmares of the Dienbienphu failure in 1954 and the memories of the betrayal by Marshal Pétain in 1940 (another example of High Command incompetence). Both Dienbienphu and Algeria had proved to be major crises for the French Army and politicians. By 1957, Algeria was proving to be a particularly intractable problem: at one point over 500,000 troops were in the country, some of them conscripts. Like Vietnam and the United States later, there was criticism at home about the war. However, there was also discontent in the army leading to fears of a coup d’ état. It is impossible now to think of these officers without comparing them with General Mireau: both seemed out of control, divorced from reality and pursuing only one honour—the glory of France.
Whatever its aims and the interpretations placed upon it, Paths of Glory is undeniably a film which opposes war. It is important to state however, as Alexander Walker has emphasised, that Kubrick cannot simply be classified as a pacifist.30 Kubrick himself, in a Playboy interview, said that he was unsure about the meaning of pacifism: on the one hand, he asks, would it have been right to submit to Hitler to prevent the Second World War? Conversely, ‘there have also been tragically senseless wars such as World War One’.31
The opposition to war is evident right from the start. Although no comment is made on the origins and need for the war, the opening narration—spoken over views of the château and following the ironic use of the Marseillaise over the credits—points out that two years of conflict have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men for very little gain. The film then focuses on three main areas: first, it examines the ambition, incompetence and brutality of the High Command; second, it provides a realistic and horrific portrayal of war; and, third, it presents an argument on the class basis of conflict.
Dramatic contrasts are used to demarcate the characters of the High Command represented principally by General Mireau, as well as General Broulard. The motivations, rationale and actions of these two officers differ markedly from Colonel Dax who, though always a soldier and dedicated ultimately to orders, is on the side of his men and only accepts Mireau’s decision to prevent being instructed to rest.
In a superb performance, George Macready as Mireau is duplicitous, utterly contemptible, self-aggrandising with an almost psychopathic hatred for the men under his command. At the start of the film he is sympathetic, concerned that, with all that they have suffered hitherto, his men will be unable to take the Ant Hill. It does not take much for Broulard to change his mind and, even though there is no promise of artillery support and reinforcements, the mention of promotion to the Twelfth Corps and an extra star for his uniform persuades him to attack.
Mireau’s tour of the trenches highlights how distant he is from the men and from the reality of battle. Although he dislikes armchair officers (Major Saint-Auban, his sycophantic adjutant, says that he ‘can hardly get the general behind a desk long enough to sign an order’32) it is clear that Mireau prefers to stay away from the front line. He is more animated than the others when shells burst near to the trench and his ‘bonhomie’ with the troops, and his denial of the existence of shellshock, shows how far removed he has been from the action. Siegfried Sassoon knew this type of general and wrote about him in his poem ‘The General’, about the Battle of Arras:

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Mireau’s inability (or refusal) to identify the problems his soldiers will face is highlighted when he views the Ant Hill through binoculars. At this level it seems near and achievable, a view belied when Dax is in no-man’s-land and sees the target as far away as ever. This failure of perception of the High Command is neatly summarised by Dax in the novel: ‘Rarely does a soldier see with naked eyes. He is nearly always looking through lenses, lenses which are made of the insignia of his rank.’33 Alexander Walker also praises Kubrick’s use of binoculars: ‘Each time it allows the military command to look on what are (or will be) the horrifying consequences of their orders without suffering the moral responsibility of physical involvement.’34
Despite his early concern, Mireau has a cavalier attitude to his men, willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to take the Ant Hill. He tells Dax of the likely casualties:

Hmm—say five per cent killed by their own barrage—that’s a very generous allowance. Ten per cent more in getting through no-man’s-land, and twenty per cent more getting through the wire. That leaves sixty-five per cent with the worst part of the job over. Let’s say another twenty-five per cent in actually taking the Ant Hill, we’re still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.

Dax is incredulous—over half his men will be killed—and although Mireau agrees it is a terrible price to pay, he must have the Ant Hill.
The change from Mireau’s concern for the men to contempt is exacerbated when the attack is about to fail. The order to bomb his own troops highlights his inability to understand the war he is fighting and the men under his control. The soldiers are now ‘miserable cowards’; when the attack fails he threatens: ‘If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones.’ From this point Mireau hates the men who have cost him his promotion. He demands ten from each company—a hundred in all—to be tried for execution for cowardice: ‘They’ve skimmed milk in their veins instead of blood’, he says. Despite Dax’s protest (his trenches are so full of blood, it’s the reddest milk he’s seen) Mireau continues:

They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that order. We can’t leave it up to the men to decide when an order is possible or not. If it was impossible the only proof of that would be their dead bodies lying on the bottom of the trenches. They’re scum, Colonel. The whole rotten regiment is a pack of sneaky, whining tail dragging curs.

However, Dax does persuade Broulard to reduce the numbers—even offering himself as a sacrifice—and Mireau agrees to three men, one from each company in the first wave. Mireau now has someone to blame, and sits smugly at the court martial. He only receives his come-uppance after the execution when Broulard confronts him with Dax’s charge and tells him of the court inquiry. Mireau’s response is characteristic: ‘So that’s it. You are making me the goat. The only completely innocent man in this whole affair. I have only one last thing to say to you, George. The man you’ve stabbed in the back is a soldier.’
The portrayal of General Broulard is also an attack on the High Command, though in different ways. It was an apt choice to cast Adolphe Menjou in the role: First World War veteran, debonair actor, enthusiast for right-wing causes (invaluable in his interpretation of the role according to Kubrick35). Broulard is shrewd, calculating and well-versed in the realities of war. He gets all he needs from the attack and its aftermath, whilst avoiding any of the blame. By ordering the attack—which he later admits to Dax was probably impossible to implement—he deflects newspaper and political pressure at home. When it fails, he is able to place the blame firmly on the men though he is not so strident in his criticism as Mireau. He is also careful to be absent from the court martial (perhaps realising the problems it could cause in the future) by telling his general it is best he handles it alone. Following Dax’s revelations he realises Mireau is a liability and ensures his dismissal, and probable suicide.
He is unable to stop the executions, however, as that would be a sign of weakness. As indicated earlier, he even offers Dax Mireau’s post which Dax rejects, to Broulard’s surprise. Indeed, neither general can understand Dax’s position throughout. Just after he has refused his offer, Broulard says:

Colonel Dax, you’re a disappointment to me. You have spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you weren’t angling for Mireau’s command. You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.

Broulard is also portrayed as having little sympathy for the men, although he recognises, from the numbers of dead, that there must have been a considerable effort to take the Ant Hill. He sees great value in the executions in helping the troops, morale pour encourager les autres: ‘these executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire Division,’ he says. ‘There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.’
Colonel Dax is the only senior officer to emerge with any credit. In a marvellously underplayed performance (which, despite his own reservations, is one of the best in a distinguished career36), Kirk Douglas plays a man cynical of the High Command who dislikes patriotism and respects, even loves, his men. At one point he quotes Samuel Johnson’s comments that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ though the point is lost on Mireau.
A prominent criminal lawyer, he is appalled by the court martial, not only by its summary injustice, but because the indictment is read only after protest and he is refused permission to introduce key evidence and testimony to his men’s previous bravery. He sums up: ‘Gentlemen of the court. There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race…this is one such occasion.’ And continues:

The attack yesterday morning was no stain on the honor of France, and certainly no disgrace to the fighting men of this nation—but this court martial is such a stain and such a disgrace. The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice. Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty will be a crime to haunt each of you to the day you die.

Despite the praise lavished by reviewers, some commentators have criticised Dax’s rôle. Robert Hughes claimed that: ‘spectators leave the film with the impression that if only guys like Kirk Douglas could lead us, we could kill each other in good conscience’.37 This is a view shared by the film director, Richard Lester.38 Kubrick himself seemed to want a degree of ambiguity in the character. In a note for distributors regarding the synchronisation of the film in foreign-language release he stated:

The voice should be cultured and educated but not to the point of being snobbish. However it should also be strong and manly. Be careful not to let… Dax ever wear his heart on his sleeve. Despite the conflict with his commanding officers he is always a soldier; and never let him indulge in self-pity, or, for that matter, never let him break his heart over the injustice being done to his men. His actions express his sympathy for his men fully enough. It would be disastrous to over-emphasize his indignation or his pity.39

Despite the differences in interpretation of Dax’s rôle there is no doubt that he rediscovers his belief in humanity at the end. Up to then his faith had been totally shattered and, as he listens to the jeers of his men in the tavern, a look of utter disgust covers his face. But the disgust wears off as the jeers fade away and the men hum, sing and cry with the German woman. As the reviewer in the Motion Picture Herald said: ‘Threaded through…is the idealism of one man and the hope that it holds for mankind [is] epitomised by the final scene…in which Douglas, embittered and defeated, sees in a single flash the understanding compassion of man.’40 Like Dick Williams, reviewer in the Mirror News, we know that the ‘barbarities of war have not permanently captured men’s souls’.41
In contrast to the officers, and unlike the novel, the poilu are not portrayed in any detail, Kubrick preferring to use them as symbols of the common suffering of the ordinary soldier in the war. This has led one commentator to criticise the film as:

a stacked deck of liberal idealism which is never convincing…. We know these hapless soldiers will be executed and we, like Kubrick, couldn’t care less. They exist, not as characters, but as targets. Kubrick loves the generals who…have the best lines and give the best performances. Kubrick is enthralled by their control and their authority, for they demonstrate his themes of universal and inherited evil.42

This is a point also recognised in Dilys Powell’s contemporary review:

The film invites compassion for the herd of soldiers, helpless, wavering between callousness and self-pitying sentimentality. But the invitation is made intellectually, from the outside. And except for a moment or two in the performance of Timothy Carey as a pathetic, bemused prisoner the characters are characters from a novel, not from life.43

The fate of the doomed men is of great interest; few viewers could fail to be moved by the miscarriage of justice and the execution. The rationale behind the order to attack, the assault, the court martial and the actions of Mireau all highlight the brutality of military incompetence. This is confirmed with the execution. As if their suffering were not enough, the three men are brought to their deaths in front of the remains of the regiment, press and invited dignitaries. Paris walks upright, resigned to his fate but able to avoid the blindfold so that he can condemn Roget and the bureaucracy; Ferol, distraught, is helped to his death by the Priest; Arnaud—who earlier in the film said that he was more afraid of pain than of being killed—is carried, barely alive, on a stretcher and his cheek is pinched so he can at least be awake at his death. ‘The men died magnificently’, Mireau tells Broulard over breakfast.
No other film about war has been able to convey in a single scene how needlessly men died to satisfy and hide the whims, ambitions, arrogance and mistakes of the High Command. The Hollywood Reporter found it praiseworthy: ‘The final big scene is a long and grotesque one, horribly impressive, in which the glory that is France is summoned up to execute the three wretched individuals and thus redress French military honor.’44
The reassertion of humanity is also present in the final scene, with the men in the tavern. Up to now, the troops, battle-weary and fatalistic, have made no comment on the trial and the execution, glad they were spared, given the arbitrary nature of the decision-making. As they sit, a frightened German woman is brought onto the stage—the first manifestation of the enemy yet seen—and her singing provides a cathartic release for their loss, fears and memories of loved ones back home. Clearly moved, Hollis Alpert commented ‘we know that Colonel Dax and his soldiers have made their odyssey and arrived home safely’.45
The anti-war nature of the film is also contained in the realistic portrayal of the horrors of war. Kubrick, an assiduous researcher and planner, was keen to attain verisimilitude in his picturing of the trenches and no-man’s-land. Impossible to make in France, the picture was filmed in and around Munich, the interiors at the Bavarian Geiselgasteig Studios and the court martial in Schleissheim Castle. For a battlefield, the company hired 5,000 square yards of land from a local farmer and dug it to create credible backgrounds.
This re-creation of reality proved a great achievement; many reviewers praised the battle scenes for their resemblance to war newsreels and photographs. As the reconnaissance patrol sets out it clambers over dead bodies, barbed wire, shellholes, mud and water; the battle scenes (with extras provided by the West German police force) are perfectly achieved and highlight the brutal noise, death and suffering—what an enthusiastic recruit in the novel calls ‘The Orchestration of the Western Front’46—of full-frontal assaults on heavily fortified enemies. Winston Churchill, who knew more than most about the results of military incompetence, praised the film’s authenticity.47
There is a third element in the film. The stark contrast between the officers in the château and the men in the trenches epitomises class struggle, and is resonant of von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The film is making a similar point to La Grande Illusion, where the differences between people are not those of nation and language, but of class. Mireau and Broulard represent the upper class, rulers, those in control, who are able to abuse those under them as weapons and pawns in their power games. At one point during their conversation prior to the attack Dax, Mireau and Saint-Auban discuss the casualties incurred earlier in the morning. Mireau says: ‘Utterly inexcusable. Stupid! All swarmed together like a bunch of flies—just waiting for someone to swat ’em.’ Major SaintAuban adds: ‘Haha—they never learn, it seems. They get in a tight spot under heavy fire—gang up every time. Herd instinct, I suppose. Kind of a loweranimal sort of thing.’ But Dax replies: ‘A kind of human sort of thing, it seems to me. Or don’t you make any distinction between the two, Major?’

Dax’s defence of the troops against this cynicism is characteristic and he is the only military man to straddle the officer/soldier divide. But it is clear which side he is on. Alexander Walker has also recognised the point of class struggle. The film, he writes:

takes its stand on human injustice. It shows one group of men being exploited by another group. It explores the social stratification of war. No man’s land is not really the great dividing barrier between the two sides …the ‘two sides’ actually wear the same uniform, serve the same flag, and hold the same battle line, though in vastly differing degrees of comfort. The actual division, the deeper conflict, is that between the leaders and the led. It exists whether there is a war or not, but a war situation widens the division fatally. Only by implication is Paths of Glory a protest against war as such; it is much more pertinently an illustration of war as the continuation of class struggle. The paths of glory in the title are not the ones that lie across the battlefield; they are the avenues to self-advancement taken by the generals in command, with the utmost indifference to the fate of the men in the trenches.48

Kubrick’s attack on military incompetence, the slaughter that results and the humanity which can remain, makes it one of the great anti-militarist statements. It came at an important time for public perceptions of conflict resolution. In the mid-1950s the world was torn apart by the Cold War, which could have resulted in near-total destruction. Paths of Glory said—at a time that needed prophets—that war was not a method for resolving disputes. Few films have matched its message and its power.

One film which shared a similar theme and came close—at least in parts — to the power of Paths of Glory was King and Country, a British film directed by Joseph Losey in 1964. Based on Hamp, a stage and television play by John Wilson (who had adapted it from the book and radio script by James Lansdale Hodson), it was an attack on military injustice and a condemnation of the use of executions to maintain morale.
Execution for desertion was a controversial issue during the war: around 25,000 British soldiers were court-martialled for being absent without leave (20,000 for drunkenness and 4,000 for insubordination and disobedience). At least 3,000 soldiers were sentenced to death for cowardice, desertion or for simply being asleep on duty, with around 346 actually executed.49 An accusation of cowardice—or actual execution—led to shame at home, though after protests by Sylvia Pankhurst, at least relatives were spared the true news (instead of a telegram informing them of the sentence and execution, they were told that the soldier had ‘died of wounds’50).
Hamp was based on one of these executions. It was written by the defence lawyer in the actual court martial. According to Losey, the original play was no more than ‘a kind of remembered transcript of the trial’, but it was also infused with a passion to right a great wrong as the writer had been troubled ‘all his life that he wasn’t able to get the boy off’.51
This was an ideal film for Losey. He was a committed director who had attacked racism, capital punishment, prison and injustice in his films The Boy With Green Hair, The Criminal, The Damned and The Lawless. This had caused problems for him in Hollywood where he was blacklisted and may have led to his later refusal to accept that his films were social comment. He told Michel Ciment: ‘I am not particularly interested by social reforms, and above all I don’t believe in “message films’”. What he was interested in was ‘making pictures of provocation’.52
He especially liked King and Country. He wanted to make the film when he realised ‘how many millions of people had died in…[the Great] war …[when] several hundred thousand men simply disappeared into the mud…and all they knew was “King and Country”, the particular shibboleth of the moment’.53 He had a limited budget (£86,000) and only three weeks shooting time. This was an advantage. ‘I was very limited as to what I could do’, he said:

so I concentrated as much as I could on the acting, on lines, and on getting a feeling of claustrophobia, getting a real sense and smell of a war without any guns being fired excepting the guns of the execution at the end, and the distant guns that are heard.54

He was helped by Dirk Bogarde, one of the leads, who contributed material to the screenplay. Bogarde was interested in the period and had been an officer in the Second World War so he knew some of the military background. More importantly, his father had served on the Somme and at Passchendaele and had been affected badly by the experience.
It is 1917 in Passchendaele. Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is in prison awaiting court martial for being absent without leave. He is defended by Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) who, like Hamp, has been at the front for three years. Hamp is married with one child. He volunteered right at the start, having been dared to by his mother and wife (who has since left him for his best friend). After three years of trench warfare he found he could take no more and decided to walk home. Though Hargreaves defends him well, the court martial finds him guilty but decides to ask for mercy. This is ignored by General Headquarters who want him shot, a decision which affects Hargreaves badly. Hamp is executed after a drunken night with the other tommies. The execution squad fail to kill him outright and it is left for Hargreaves to deliver the final shot.

The film’s opening is a magnificent piece of cinema which attacks right from the start the glory of war and the military machine (the film was originally to be called Glory Hole). Originally, Losey wanted to start the film with the end of All Quiet on the Western Front. However, Lewis Milestone told him that only Universal could give permission to use the famous butterfly sequence; in any case, he said that it would provide an easy target for criticism.55 Losey started the film instead with a lengthy sequence going from a shot of the monument to the Royal Artillery in Hyde Park (inscribed ‘The Royal Fellowship of Death’) back to 1917 with a rain-soaked trench, an explosion, a dead horse and a battle-scarred field. This is followed with a grotesque still of a rotting soldier which dissolves into Hamp lying on his bed. In the background to most of this is the music of a harmonica, and Hamp’s recitation of A.E.Housman’s war poem ‘Here Dead We Lie’ (for some reason this was misquoted):

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, after all, is nothing much to lose;
Though young men think it is, and we were young.56

The use of the monument at the start of the film was an important point for Losey:

I took buses in those days and I used to ride by Hyde Park Corner every day and see this horrendous heroic monument which is such a joke in the light of what one knows about the war…. I wanted to get some impression of what had been done. How the war was brought about is all in the title. The people were sold that war on the basis of king and country. And…now, there is still the pomp of these red-coated, helmeted, Queen’s Guards and the idiocy of this sentimental monument to people who just died the most miserable dog’s deaths.57

Losey’s realistic portrayal of the trenches was different to many other British war films. Unlike Journey’s End, he chose to stay within the confines of the trench (though, no doubt, budget restrictions played their part in the decision). By doing so, he shows some of the claustrophobia of the trench and the dugout. He also shows some of the horrors—horrors which are exacerbated as the viewer knows that the men are actually resting at this stage: the trenches are like sewers, rats are everywhere (one bites the ear of one of the soldiers) and a severed arm holds up one of the walls. And by not having enemies on show, Losey shows that the real enemy is war and the class system.
This is shown most clearly in the relationship between Hargreaves and Hamp. It is clear right from the start that Hargreaves is an officer and is superior—his bearing, tone, even his little moustache, highlight this. He does not relish the job he has been given: it is pointless and he will lose. ‘If a dog breaks its back, you shoot it,’ he says early in the film. Despite this, Hargreaves is decent and has sympathy for Hamp and the men, creating ‘a common humanity across the barriers of class and rank’, as David Caute, Losey’s biographer, states.58 As they talk, Hargreaves becomes more sympathetic. He cannot get too close, however. War is a duty, and he admonishes Hamp for not doing his duty which would have avoided the trial. Even Hargreaves, though, is shocked by the decision and he collapses in the mud on the way back to the dugout. Like Hamp, Hargreaves is destroyed by the execution. Losey said:

[the film is really] a class conversation in which the officer is educated by the boy’s simplicity. So that when that pistol, that coup de grâce, has to be fired at the end, in a sense Hargreaves is ending his own life as well as the boy’s. Like the man who wrote Hamp, he will never be able to get that out of his system.59

As in Paths of Glory, the court martial is at the heart of the film. Hamp genuinely does not know why he set out from the trench that day. The only time he comes close to a reason is when he talks about the comrades he has lost. All those who joined up with him have now been killed, the most recent at Passchendaele when his friend was blown to bits. When arrested he gave himself up without a fight; unlike others, he chose not to disable himself. He is just an ordinary soldier, with a blank record—neither good nor bad as the prosecuting officer points out. Throughout all this Hamp believes in justice and that he will be found to be innocent. Lieutenant Webb defends him by calling him a good soldier and someone who makes excellent tea.
However, there can be no consideration of shellshock, which Hargreaves tries to introduce. The Medical Officer (Leo McKern) refuses to even consider the condition and prefers to prescribe laxatives for mental illness. And the Colonel chairing the court martial will have nothing said about such problems.
There is no justice. As Captain Midgley, the prosecuting officer, tells Hargreaves: ‘A proper court is concerned with law. It’s a bit amateur to plead for justice.’ The High Command even ignore the plea for mercy. They want an execution to encourage the others who will be in the next attack, though the commanding officer does question whether this will have the desired effect.
Losey’s commentary on the trial is provided by a Greek chorus of tommies. Throughout the film these are cynical of the war: they are sardonic about the trial (they know he will die); they are brutal (they torture rats) and oblivious to convention as they steal food and rum from the officers. They hold their own mock trial of a rat which mirrors Hamp’s own. After he has been sentenced, they spend a drunken night with him at his farewell party. Here the cynicism and the brutality are complete as they blindfold him and subject him to a mock execution. He only escapes all this with the arrival of morphine.
The ending of the film is similar to that of Paths of Glory. There is a visit by a padre, though Hamp vomits the Communion bread and wine. The execution itself is brutal: Hamp is carried out in a chair, blindfolded. The firing squad shoot to miss, though a few shots injure him. Webb—who didn’t want his men to be in the firing squad—cannot bring himself to finish Hamp’s life, forcing Hargreaves to take over. As he cradles Hamp’s head he says: ‘lsn’t it finished yet?’ Hamp’s reply, ‘No sir. I’m sorry’, is followed by Hargreaves’ shot and Hamp is left dead in the mud.
King and Country was acclaimed critically in Britain and in the United States. Variety said that Losey had ‘attacked the subject with confidence and vigor’, with the result being ‘a highly sensitive and emotional drama’.60 Despite the praise—and an award for Courtenay’s acting—the film failed at the box office in both countries and in France where it was released as Pour l’example.
King and Country was an important British film. Ultimately, however, it is too bleak. There are, undoubtedly, some powerful moments, not least at the end. But it is difficult to engage fully and Hamp is too simple and naïve to attract affection and sympathy. Finally, there are no uplifting moments: Paths of Glory ends on a message of hope, King and Country with an old general in his car. The condemnation of war is just as strong, but the humanity is absent.


1 N.F.Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, London, Futura, 1979, p. 80.
2 A.Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs, London, Abacus, 1973, p. 82.
3 See J.Burgess, ‘The “Anti-Militarism” of Stanley Kubrick’, Film Quarterly, vol. 18, 1964, pp. 4–11.
4 Much of the information on Kirk Douglas and Paths of Glory is taken from his autobiography, K.Douglas, The Ragman’s Son, London, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
5 See Walker, op. cit., p. 23. Kirk Douglas says that the cost was substantially higher.
6 Douglas, op. cit., p. 274.
7 ibid., p. 282. Kubrick’s co-producer, James Harris, was also reluctant to promote the film as having a message. In an undated United Artists production note circulated to the press he is quoted as saying: ‘It is a serious film, but first of all it is fine entertainment…. If it makes some people think a little, that is only incidental. We’re not here to preach, we’re here to entertain.’
8 Douglas, op. cit., p. 333.
9 H.Cobb, Paths of Glory, New York, Viking Press, 1935, p. 265.
10 R.van Gelder, ‘A Talk With the Author of “Paths of Glory”’, New York Times, 22 September 1940.
11 B.Crowther, New York Times, 26 December 1957.
12 A.Sennwald, ‘The Paths of Glory’, New York Times, 27 October 1935.
13 New York Times, 27 September 1935, quoted in H.Alpert, ‘War and Justice’, Saturday Review, 21 December 1957, pp. 31–2.
14 See S.E.Tabachnick’s afterword to the reprint of Paths of Glory, Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1987, pp. 267–304. For further discussion on the book and the film see J.Bier, ‘Cobb and Kubrick: author and auteur (Paths of Glory as novel and film)’, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1985, pp. 453–71.
15 Cobb, op. cit., p. 21.
16 Variety, 20 November 1957.
17 Film Daily, 19 November 1957.
18 Time, 9 December 1957.
19 Alpert, op. cit., p. 31.
20 ibid.
21 G.Lambert, ‘Paths of Glory’, in D.Wilson (ed.), Sight and Sound: a fiftieth anniversary selection, London, Faber & Faber/British Film Institute, 1982, p. 126.
22 From MPPDA files. All information from the MPPDA is taken from research in the Margaret Herrick Library in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.
23 ‘France Veto Keeps UA’s “Glory” out of West Berlin’, Variety, 2 July 1958.
24 Quoted in ‘Disputed Film on Again’, New York Times, 12 March 1958.
25 ‘Swiss Press Outraged by Arbitrary Government Action Vs. “Paths of Glory”’, Variety, 31 December 1958.
26 S.King, ‘Israel Softens Curbs on Films’, New York Times, 26 October 1958.
27 Much of the information on the French release was provided by the Centre National de la Cinématographie.
28 ‘French Ease Censorship on Historical Films’, Box Office, 5 May 1975.
29 ‘“Paths of Glory”, Kubrick ‘58 Anti-War Film May Finally Win Paris Dates’, Variety, 19 July 1978.
30 Walker, op. cit., p. 35.
31 The interview is reprinted in J.Agel (ed.), The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, New York, Signet, 1970, p. 350.
32 All quotations from the film have been taken from the screenplay held in the New York State Archives, Albany.
33 Cobb, op. cit., p. 103.
34 Walker, op. cit., p. 108.
35 ibid., p. 24.
36 ibid.
37 R.Hughes, ‘Murder: a “big problem”’, in his Film: Book 2—Films of Peace and War, New York, Grove Press, 1962, p. 8.
38 N.Sinyard, The Films of Richard Lester, Beckenham, Kent, Croom Helm, 1985, p. 51.
39 An insert contained in the screenplay (see note 32 above).
40 Motion Picture Herald, 23 November 1957, p. 617.
41 Mirror News, 21 December 1957.
42 A.Turner, Guardian, 23 December 1988.
43 D.Powell, December 1957 review in G.Perry (ed.), Dilys Powell—The Golden Screen: fifty years of films, London, Headline, 1989, p. 146.
44 J.Powers, ‘“Paths of Glory” Is Strong War Story with Big Impact’, Hollywood Reporter, 18 November 1957, p. 3. 45 Alpert, op. cit., p. 32.
46 Cobb, op. cit., p. 75.
47 Walker, op. cit., p. 23.
48 ibid., p. 84.
49 Figures from J.M.Browne, Britain and the Great War, 1914–1918, London, Arnold, 1989, quoted in J.Palmer and M.Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
50 See P.Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 176.
51 M.Ciment, Conversations with Losey, London and New York, Methuen, 1985, p. 244.
52 Ciment interview, quoted in D.Caute, Joseph Losey: a revenge on life, London, Faber & Faber, 1994, p. 281.
53 Quoted in J.Leahy, The Cinema of Joseph Losey, London, Zwemmer, 1967, p. 134.
54 Ciment, op. cit.
55 ibid., p. 245.
56 The official version is as follows:
Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
57 Ciment, op. cit., p. 244.
58 Caute, op. cit., p. 498.
59 Ciment, op. cit., p. 245.
60 Variety, 16 September 1964.

Kelly, Andrew, “The Brutality of Military Incompetence: Paths of Glory (1957),” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon), vol. 13, no. 2, June 1993

Andrew Kelly, Cinema and The Great War (London, 1997), pp. 127-141


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