Stanley Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory' (1957) is much more than an antiwar film; it is as much about the necessary absurdity of the human condition as about the contingent horror of war

by Jason Holt

Paths of Glory (1957) is far from Kubrick’s best-known film. In fact, it is not even his best-known war film. If one thinks of it at all, it comes well down the list, certainly after Full Metal Jacket (1987) and, although they are not strictly war films, Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Barry Lyndon (1975). Still, Paths of Glory is a fine entry in Kubrick’s numerically modest but aesthetically powerful body of work. It is arguably his most underrated film. Some critics consider it the best antiwar film ever made, but even this positive verdict sells the movie short. Paths of Glory is much more than an antiwar film; it is as much about the necessary absurdity of the human condition as about the contingent horror of war. As such, it is a perspicuous, poignant, and truly profound film.
In this essay I explore how Paths of Glory illustrates, and even illuminates, certain important facets of existentialism. Rather than focusing on particular existentialist philosophers, my concern is with the existential viewpoint in general, especially as it bears on ethics—that is, moral philosophy and principles of right and wrong.1 Paths of Glory illustrates some of the basic tenets of existential ethics and illuminates certain problems associated with it—especially what might be called the paradox of existentialism (the denial of objective values along with the affirmation of an apparently objective value) and the problem of authenticity (the “existential virtue,” which, from one perspective, seems unavoidable and therefore not a virtue)—as well as roads to solving those problems.
Here is a brief rundown of the film: During World War I, the fictional 701st Regiment of the French army, led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), is ordered by General Mireau (George Macready) to leave the trenches and attack the Ant Hill, a German stronghold. Everyone knows that the stronghold is impregnable. When the attack fails, three men from the regiment are randomly selected to stand court-martial for cowardice. Despite Dax’s skilled efforts to defend them, it is a kangaroo court-martial, and the men are found guilty and executed by firing squad. Although Mireau eventually gets his comeuppance, Dax and the surviving members of the 701st are ordered to return to the front immediately.

Mortal Thoughts
The screenplay for Paths of Glory was written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson and based on the 1934 novel by Humphrey Cobb. The title comes from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Here is the applicable stanza:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

I include this stanza not only because it fleshes out the film’s literary background but also because the sentiment it expresses is, in many ways, at the very core of the existential point of view.
The themes of death and, in some sense, the pointlessness of life loom large not only in existential philosophy but also, quite expectedly, in many war films. Paths of Glory is no exception. Note the following dialogue between two soldiers in the 701st the night before their suicide mission to attack the Ant Hill:

YOUNGER SOLDIER: Look, just like I’m trying to tell you: If you’re really afraid of dying, you’d be living in a funk all the rest of your life, because you know you’ve got to go some day, any day. And besides, if it’s death that you’re really afraid of, why should you care about what it is that kills you?
OLDER SOLDIER: You’re too smart for me, “Professor.” All I know is, nobody wants to die.

That we, as humans, are not only mortal but also concerned with our own mortality—that we are beings toward death (more or less as Martin Heidegger put it)—though perhaps not terribly insightful, pervades the existential point of view, and it makes sense of the two main ingredients of the existential stance.
The first main ingredient of the existential stance is a view of how the world is; in particular, it is about what it means to be a human being in the world. We are thrown into the world. The situations in which we find ourselves are the products of external influences, past decisions, and so on. These situations both present possibilities and constrain opportunities for choice and action. We are free, in such situations, to choose how to act and what to value. Nothing external to us—not nature, morality, social pressure, history, and so on—can determine what we choose, value, or do. “Thrownness” means freedom constrained by situation. Heidegger’s term for the kind of being that is peculiar to humans is dasein, a situationally constrained being-in-the-world whose existence (defined partly by its inevitable demise) is an issue for it. As Jean-Paul Sartre phrases it, a person is pour-soi (being-for-itself), condemned to freedom; this freedom causes, and in some sense constitutes, anxiety and anguish.2 Clearly, the men of the 701st, complete with anxiety and anguish, are thrown into their situation, whether in or out of the trenches.
Whereas the first ingredient of the existential stance is a view of how things stand, the second ingredient is a view of how one ought to act, an existential ethics. Although there are, in a sense, no objective values (that is, no binding principles that tell us what, specifically, to do), there are existentially better and worse ways of making choices and performing actions. Existentially appropriate choices and actions are authentic, while inappropriate ones are inauthentic. It is not easy to figure out what exactly existentialists mean by “authenticity.” Part of what it means is acknowledging the fact that one is thrown into the world, that one is free, and that the burden of choice, value, and action falls squarely on one’s own shoulders. Failing to acknowledge this, thinking instead that one’s actions are determined by outside forces, is what Sartre calls bad faith. But there seems to be more to it than that. Looking at a few problems with the existential point of view will help us get a better grip on authenticity.

Good Form
Before we try to understand what it means to be authentic, however, we are faced with a problem—the paradox of existentialism. On the one hand, we are positing that there are no objective values, that there is no legitimate moral maxim that tells us how to behave, no way we can determine before the fact, in an abstract way, what we ought to do. On the other hand, we are positing that we ought to behave authentically, that there is at least one legitimate moral maxim expressible as “Be authentic” or “Thou shalt be authentic.” Call this the existential imperative. Such a maxim, if legitimate, expresses an objective value—one of the things that we are positing do not exist. So, is existentialism inconsistent? Does the denial of objective values imply that there are objective values? This is the paradox of existentialism.
The very formulation of the paradox suggests the way to resolve it. Perhaps there is no legitimate moral maxim telling us what to do. The existential imperative does not tell us what to do but rather how to do it. Authenticity is a matter of how one acts, not what one does. It is form, not content, that matters. Authenticity is a formal virtue in this sense. It is content-nonspecific, rather like sincerity (meaning what you say, no matter what you happen to say), consistency (between whatever values you say you have and the acts you commit), and integrity (acting in accordance with your true values, whatever they happen to be). The connection between authenticity and these other formal virtues is more than a passing one. Sartre, for instance, sometimes uses the term sincerity (presumably of a rare, existential kind—sincerity of action rather than run-of-the-mill sincerity of speech) to contrast with bad faith, his term for inauthenticity. Along with inauthenticity, there are a number of formal vices corresponding to the formal virtues listed above: insincerity (not meaning what you say), hypocrisy (acting contrary to the values you say you have), and inconsistency (acting contrary to your own true values). In fact, inconsistency is a reasonably close approximation of inauthenticity, and integrity comes close to capturing what authenticity means (together with the clear acknowledgment of one’s freedom). In other words, genuine existence is not a matter of the particular values one happens to have but rather a matter of how one’s actions—and one’s life, really—comport with those values. The paradox is resolved by distinguishing objective values (which are denied) from meta-values (values about values, or second-order values), which is the kind of thing authenticity is.
In Paths of Glory, two characters in particular illustrate the formal vices and virtues mentioned above. General Mireau is insincere (the lives of his men do not matter to him, even though his rhetoric says otherwise), and he is a hypocrite (for instance, for ordering the artillery to fire on his own divisions and insisting that men of the 701st be court-martialed for cowardice)—an inauthentic soldier. Colonel Dax, by contrast, is sincere (in claiming that he cares about his men), is consistent (in doing his soldierly duty), and has integrity (by defending the men whom he believes are being treated unfairly). Dax is an authentic soldier, paradigmatically, and ultimately to his detriment. Dax is offered Mireau’s command by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), who presumes that Dax has been angling for the promotion all along and that his motivation in bringing Mireau to account was advancement, not justice. Dax, however,  does not take the easy way out (of the trenches, as it happens); he refuses the commission, expresses vehement outrage to Broulard, and returns to his men, knowing full well that they will soon have to return to the front.

Dying Well
In Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s character says, “Talent is luck. The most important thing in life is courage.” There is something to that. To see why, let us consider a potential problem with the perspective outlined in the previous section.
What I have called the existential imperative obliges us to be authentic, to exhibit formal virtues, to be true to ourselves. But is it possible to be inauthentic? Can one avoid being true to oneself? Whatever one chooses, for whatever reason, one would seem to be, in that moment, unavoidably true to oneself, unavoidably authentic, because one has made the choice. From this point of view, General Mireau is no less authentic, no less true to himself, than Colonel Dax is. Freedom cannot be held hostage to anything—even (maybe especially) one’s past choices, values, and actions. Is the call to authenticity, then, an empty requirement?
Seemingly not, because one might make choices and act without acknowledging one’s freedom, thinking that one’s actions are determined by something outside the self. Such choices and actions would be inauthentic. But is that all there is to it? Presumably not, because then being authentic would merely be a matter of knowing something, of epistemic (knowledgerelated) virtue, and authenticity, in a strange way, is the existentialist’s version of moral virtue. Authenticity is not mere clear-sightedness. One might acknowledge one’s thrownness, one’s freedom, without that knowledge entering into one’s action at all.
The phenomenon of weakness of will, or akrasia, should help clarify this issue. Suppose I have made a certain choice to act in the pursuit of some value, but when I am tested, in the moment of truth, my nerve fails and I turn coward. In Paths of Glory, Roget (Wayne Morris) is a prime example. In such a moment of weakness, he ends up killing (by grenade) one of the men under his charge on a mission in no-man’s-land. As the Roget case nicely illustrates, in some situations one might not have the courage to act in accordance with one’s values, to further the cause on behalf of which one has decided to act. One might fail to be authentic because of a lack of backbone.
This means that even with a stripped-down ethics à la existentialism, with a morality of form rather than content—a “formalist” ethics, if you like—content sneaks in through the back door. The foundation of authenticity, of all formal virtues, is courage. Since Aristotle at least, the virtue of courage has been considered a character trait, a mean (average) state between cowardice (where courage is deficient) and foolhardiness or rashness (where courage is excessive and thus not courage proper). Existential artworks almost invariably depict antiheroes who, though rejecting traditional morality in the name of freedom, exhibit courage. This is especially clear in cases in which characters “die well.” In Paths of Glory, the three men court-martialed for cowardice are found guilty and sentenced to death. In front of the firing squad, Arnaud (Joe Turkel), who is badly injured, falls unconscious; Ferol (Timothy Carey) melts into a blubbering mess; and Paris (Ralph Meeker), despite his earlier failure of nerve, faces death with a steadfast, open-eyed equanimity and poise. As senseless as his execution is, he dies well. Even though he is not a perfect hero, even by existential standards, Paris’s death is a triumph. Wartime provides many opportunities for authenticity, and many temptations away from it.

Music Hath Charms
One of the striking motifs in Full Metal Jacket is the duality of human nature suggested by the juxtaposition of a peace symbol and the slogan “Born to Kill.” A similar duality is suggested in a crucial scene at the end of Paths of Glory. After Mireau’s comeuppance and Dax’s imprudent, if authentic, refusal to assume Mireau’s command, Dax returns to his men and watches them through a café window. The men partake of “entertainment” in the form of forcing an attractive and presumably captive German woman (Susanne Christian, a.k.a. Christiane Kubrick) to sing. They harass her with ugly hooting, hollering, and catcalling; their intentions, whether sublimated or delayed, are as obvious as they are sinister. But then, as they listen to the beautiful singing, their ugliness dissipates, becoming silent attention and, eventually, tearful, chantlike, almost solemn humming along. Their basic human decency has been reclaimed, and Dax gives them a momentary reprieve before following the order to return to the front. Despite the doom that awaits the 701st, this ending provides a note of great poignancy and—uncharacteristic for Kubrick—hope.
The appeal and return to basic human decency might seem inconsistent with the existential point of view. According to this viewpoint, to say that human beings are essentially free is to say that there is no such thing as human nature. If there were such a thing as human nature, then that nature, not a person’s free choosing, would determine his or her actions. The basic humanity that redeems the 701st, as well as the initial will to evil that puts them in a position to be redeemed, might be seen as an essential, behaviordetermining pair of forces. Add to this the sense that the members of the 701st are pawns in a generals’ chess game, and the outcome seems to have nothing to do with free choice and more to do with myriad internal and implacable external forces that they can neither negotiate successfully nor ultimately resist.
The apparent tension here is, however, merely apparent. In this military chess game seemingly doomed to a pointless stalemate, the members of the 701st have limited freedom in deciding their fate but full freedom in how they choose to meet it. More important, even if they are naturally disposed to feel the tension between good and bad impulses (as in the café scene), it is ultimately their choice whether “Born to Kill” or the peace sign is the winning slogan. Although the outlook suggested here involves a much more tightly constrained thrownness than many would like to admit—many existentialists included—it remains consistent with the fundamental premise of human freedom. It may appear that freedom is hamstrung by these limitations, but in reality, it is not. However narrowly circumscribed one’s options are, they are always there for the choosing.

Paint It Black
Although the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” is played over the closing credits of Full Metal Jacket, not Paths of Glory, I want to end on a strong if somewhat incongruous note. Kubrick is a master of the cinematic sound track, and his use of “Paint It Black” is a masterstroke.
Using Paths of Glory to illustrate, I have argued that some of the apparent problems with existentialism—in particular, what I call the paradox of existentialism and the seeming inevitability of authenticity—can be solved. By distinguishing between formal and “contentful” virtues, the first problem is soluble. By acknowledging that actions can be performed without acknowledging one’s own freedom and, more important, that in performing or failing to perform actions one may exhibit a weakness of will, the second is soluble. By the same token, or so I have argued, the more traditional virtue of courage underlies an existential, or similarly “formalist,” ethics.


For helpful comments, I thank Jerold J. Abrams, and for useful discussion, I thank Ami Harbin.

1. For a good general introduction to existentialism, I recommend Robert Solomon, ed., Existentialism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), a wide-ranging selection of primary texts, both philosophical and literary.
2. For those interested in such matters, consider the following equation: Sartre = Heidegger + Descartes.


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