Paths of Glory: Kubrick’s graduation piece

Paths of Glory finds Kubrick dealing in the wider realm of ideas with a relevance to man and society. Without casting off any of his innate irony and skepticism, the director declares his allegiance to his fellow men.

by Alexander Walker

Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s graduation piece. Before he made it, he had the reputation of an interesting newcomer who used highly original techniques to refresh the Hollywood thriller. After it was produced, he was recognized as a significant American director. It revealed a talent able to work in a tradition of individual statement—and, indeed, able to work in Europe, too, for there were far fewer expatriate directors or “runaway” productions being set up on the Continent then. And the era and milieu of the film, the 1914-1918 conflict, brought an American filmmaker face to face with the challenge of a particularly European experience beyond the direct recall of all but a few of Hollywood’s veteran directors. The fact that some favorably compared the film to the work of Max Ophuls is one measure of Kubrick’s growth as an artist.

But even more impressive is the humanist response that beats like a pulse through a brutally cynical story, lifting it out of its particular place and time. The Killing had its limits inside a genre crime story; and though it stretched them imaginatively, it remained a heartless illustration of criminal ingenuity and its unforeseen consequences. Paths of Glory finds Kubrick dealing in the wider realm of ideas with a relevance to man and society. Without casting off any of his innate irony and skepticism, the director declares his allegiance to his fellow men.

The film has sometimes been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, which Lewis Milestone made in 1930. This is a natural, yet a misleading, comparison to make. Both are American films that sink their national identity into a depiction of “foreign” combatants in World War One—in Milestone’s film, the Germans; in Kubrick’s, the French. Both are unsparing of their battlefield detail. But Milestone argued that the good man’s only response to war is pacifism; his film’s emphasis on sacrifice in battle is what keeps his protest reverberating still. It shows lives wasted. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, 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 in Paths of Glory; 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. The film’s brief and brilliant opening exposition prepares all the other moves that follow. A narrator sets the war-front scene in a few communique sentences as General Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, arrives at the grandoise château commandeered as field headquarters by the French. This masterly casting of Menjou confirms Kubrick’s instinct for an aspect of filmmaking that often predetermines much of a film’s effectiveness, before the camera starts turning. From the first second of his entry—he hands his hat to his aide without a glance toward him, confident that the man knows his place and will be standing there—Menjou radiates the air of someone used to warming both hands before the fire of human life. His acute-angled glances shot from under hooded lids play off chillingly against the carefully cultivated air of bonhomie with his crony and subordinate, General Mireau.

Equally indicative of the moral ambiance is the physical setting. The chateau is a place of order and elegance—all mirrored walls, shining parquet, baroque furnishings, and palatial staircases—yet somehow corrupt and eerie, like a vampire’s castle in the Old High German cinema.

The use Kubrick makes of such a set was to occur again in his later films—most strikingly in Lolita, which opens, like Paths of Glory, in an eerie and decadent mansion, cavernous and deserted except for the two protagonists, Quilty and Humbert Humbert, who proceed to lead each other through the baroque furnishings in a way that recalls Mireau and Broulard. And although the keynote is black comedy in Lolita, whereas it is ironic tragedy in Paths of Glory, the impression both films convey is that of an obsession which will overwhelm and destroy those who feed on it. In the opening scenes of Lolita it is the resolution of an obsession—love of a forbidden kind —which Kubrick makes us witness. In Paths of Glory it is the sowing of an obsession—ambition of a monstrous degree. In both obsessions, needless to say, lies death.

The visitor proposes, ever so subtly, for the good of morale back home, an attack on a German emplacement that is clearly impregnable. As Broulard perambulates beside the ambitious General Mireau (played by George Macready), in ever more winding circles among the gleaming furniture, Kubrick’s camera starts moving too, duplicating physically the devious moral seduction of Mireau away from all reality and reason. The deal is closed as Mireau agrees to order the offensive that will decimate his men but perhaps capture the hill and gain him promotion. It is partly the tone of cynical decadence, the baroque decor, and the camera’s labyrinthine movements that have prompted the comparison between Kubrick and Ophuls.1 The comparison is valid, yet largely irrelevant. Kubrick’s camera follows character —the character of two corrupt militarists—rather than the stylistic example Ophuls set in the cinema.

Since Kubrick is a director whose attitude to a subject forms his style, he resists getting involved too early in the visual possibilities of a sequence. But throughout Paths of Glory the moral content of a sequence has its effect on his choice of camera technique. In this respect, it is a far more complex film than those of his earlier American subjects, which depend primarily on the action content of the story. The chateau scenes with the devious commanders in Paths of Glory are shot with a continually curving mobility; the trench scenes force the camera to follow, without choice, the shape of the dugout maze that has conditioned men to obey; and the scenes of court-martial and execution have a geometrical rigor that reflects the predetermined verdict and the preordained fate of the accused men.

In contrast, Kubrick maintains an honest directness of camera angle to characterize the relationship between the ordinary men in the line and Colonel Dax, who is a man of moral conscience. Dax belongs to the trench world, which is the polar opposite of the chateau society. When General Mireau visits Dax in his dugout, he moves, ill-at-ease, through the tortuous trench system stiffly complimenting soldiers with hollow exhortations to valor; but Dax, taking the same route before the attack, moves like a man among his fellow men. His military obedience has a place in it for human values; he is the only officer who has not let a gap develop between himself and his men. Kirk Douglas’ strong bone structure and physique, so often used to give his screen roles a barely suppressed threat of violence, serve here to give a dimension of moral stature as he stands up for the rights and lives of his men. But Dax is a soldier, too. When ordered by Mireau to lead the attack on the enemy emplacement, known as Ant Hill, he protests passionately—but he obeys.

The cynical calculation of the potential casualties that prefaces this offensive is almost a pilot study for Dr. Strangelove‘s nuclear overkill. Five per cent killed going over the top, says Mireau, another five per cent as the advance starts, “let’s say another twenty-five per cent in actually taking the Ant Hill— we’re still left with enough men to keep it.” Such mental arithmetic resembles General Turgidson’s call for all-out nuclear war on Russia in Dr. Strange-love, on the ground that retaliation will mean “only ten to twenty million people killed, tops, depending on the breaks”; the difference is simply that the Bomb makes multiplying easier. Mireau’s calculation of casualties also has its cynical concomitant in reverse, after the raid has failed; the angry, humiliated general now demands the lives of hundreds of his own men before the firing squad, so as to “en-courage” the others. Gradually the numbers of scapegoats are whittled down, like a business deal being done between him and the more politically prudent General Broulard. The “hundreds” become “dozens” and finally “one man from each company, three in all.” This reductio ad absurdum could not be more horrifyingly rendered.

The gathering enormity of the affair is rendered audibly in the echo effect taken on by the voices of the bargaining men. Kubrick will use a similar hollowness, presaging doom, in Dr. Strangelove. But something else can be detected as well, a minor but telling Kubrick characteristic. This is General Mireau’s shortness of breath, which lends to his character at this point a panicky indignation, part anger at the catastrophe, part fear that his own faux pas will be revealed. While it is dramatically right in this context, the kind of asthmatic fear the sound embodies, the sense of entrapment and enclosure, seems to have a special appeal to Kubrick. Claustrophobia is the last thing one is prepared for in the infinity of space, but the breathing of the astronaut marooned outside his craft in 2001 is the only audible sound at that point in the film and it illustrates his sense of isolation more dramatically than would any music score.2 A man as protective of his private life and guarded about his personal independence as Kubrick is particularly alert to situations in which one might no longer be in full control; this awareness has made him sensitive to, and predisposes him to use, these highly appropriate sounds of unease.

The most justly famous sequence in Paths of Glory is the attack itself and the prelude to it. It has all the shattered details of old World War One photographs and an emotional thrust that rides on the shock waves of slaughter. Kubrick’s subjective camera “stands in” for Dax as he strides through the endless wormlike trench. The waiting infantry making way for him (and the camera) look in ,the flat gray light like figures in stone relief already carved into the plinth of a war memorial. Soldiers loom like apparitions through the smoke, or dust, at the far end of the trench. Now and then a mobile overhead camera keeps the grim-visaged Dax under dispassionate scrutiny while the pace of his inspection builds up a purposive momentum. Then the attack! It is a marvel of composition in depth and detail. The movement is now sideways, keeping pace with the packs of crouching men scurrying like rats up and down the inhuman contours of the shell-pocked ground, shrouded in smoke one second, showered with earth, shrapnel, and debris the next. On and on and on they go, in an animated mural of death. The sound of battle has a dreadful distinctiveness, too. Like all Kubrick’s movies, Paths of Glory uses sound to emotionally supplement perception. Over the noise and panic shrills the call-to-duty piping of Dax’s whistle. A zoom lens operated by Kubrick himself continually “homes” in on Dax, catching his growing despair as the thinning ranks of the living betray both the failure of the attack and the lack of support from the French soldiers in the other trenches, who are unwilling, or unable, to advance through the German fire power. A furious Mireau orders his own artillery to fire on these “cowards,” but he is met with the artillery commander’s refusal except on written orders. Mireau snaps, “If the little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones.”

Cut instantly to the château. The random slaughter of the battlefield is succeeded by selective killing through court-martial and execution. As Broulard says, “Soldiers are like children. They need discipline.” The discipline he recommends is “shooting a man now and then.” The isolation of ordinary soldiers from the officers who command them is emphasized throughout Paths of Glory in a variety of ways. It is explicit not only in the main story, but also in the well-integrated subplot, in which a cowardly lieutenant, ordered to make a reconnaissance sortie into no man’s land before the attack, sends a soldier out in front of him, panics when the man does not return, and then thoughtlessly kills him himself when he lobs a grenade into the dark at the imagined foe. He later tries to conceal his criminal callousness by condemning the one eyewitness to the deed as one of the three scapegoats picked for execution. The gap between leaders and led is implicit in the film’s settings as well; it has already been noted how the characters belong either to the chateau or to the trenches, with Dax the only man straddling the two worlds. But there is a third visual device that Kubrick uses, to the extent of making it almost a leitmotiv. This is his repeated framing of a view of no man’s land, or the actual battle, inside the double lenses of a pair of field glasses. The binocular effect is employed no fewer than four times. 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. Apart from Dax, the commanders’ role is limited to that of spectators. (General Mireau does intervene in the action, it is true, but only to order gunfire on his own troops.) Protocol also makes them voyeurs at the execution of the scapegoats; the huge chateau in the background appears to observe the deaths in the morning with the same chilly aloofness. And General Broulard even improves on this detachment—for, his foxy nose scenting the risks of involvement in even this formal encounter, he makes up his mind not to attend the court-martial, thereby effectively putting the consequences of his strategy right out of sight.

Paths of Glory opens with the blare of the “Marseillaise” behind the credit titles, but despite the brazen orchestration it has an ironically hollow ring. The citizens’ song has become the anthem of an Establishment that uses men for its own cynical ends, in war as in peace. And war gives the leaders an advantage in permitting them to take short cuts to power and privilege that need at least the plausible processes of government in peacetime. A well-aimed bullet is the extreme sanction of the Establishment; war facilitates it.

The court-martial, at which Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, defends the three accused men, is a mockery of justice. Kubrick shoots it in a way that emphasizes the inhumanity inherent in the ritual. The camera tracks laterally along behind the officers of the court as the prosecutor makes out a case as if the result was a foregone conclusion—which indeed he knows it is. Then it repeats the movement in parallel fashion, though this time behind the accused, as Dax makes his plea. Symmetry is all. The guards’ rifles are grounded and angled at precisely the same degree, the three accused men are so symmetrically positioned that one half of the white, gleaming, light-filled hall looks like a mirror image of the other. Such inflexible lines have something sacrificially ritualistic about them.

One of the strongest impressions Paths of Glory leaves on a viewer is the extreme mobility of Kubrick’s camera. In sequence after sequence the arrangement of the shooting angles is planned with a view to the camera’s participation in the action. Kubrick is extraordinarily successful in inventing visual movements that are the equivalent of the drama created by events or latent in the atmosphere of a scene. The lateral movements already described in the court-martial sequence, the horrifying horizontal advance of the camera in line with the no-man’s-land battle, along with the “zooming” incursions into the midst of the carnage, and the long backward track of Dax’s trench walk are all ways of visually dramatizing what is happening. They are also ways of relating the viewer to the space on the screen by involving him in that space—moving him through it. Far more than in the earlier films, Kubrick is at pains to ensure that the mechanical factor does not stand as a barrier between the spectator and the film. And in 2001: A Space Odyssey he was to use such movements extensively with the same aim in mind.

In the court-martial sequence Kubrick employs a visual device that crops up in other films—The Killing, Dr. Strangelove—for various reasons. This is the repetition of an image or a series of images. His repeated use of the “binocular” image has already been referred to. In the court-martial section of the film he starts off the testimony of each of the three prisoners with the same visual composition, a high-angle shot of the stiffly aligned soldiers placed geometrically on the chessboard floor of the huge salon. He then comes in to show us the prisoner facing the camera (the judges), the soldiers behind him, so that the man appears to be clamped between the jaws of a vise. The camera then cuts between close-ups of the prisoner, the judges, and General Mireau. The separate human individuals are all caught in the same machinelike action.

The whole execution scene continues the build-up of formal procedure, only now it is pierced through and through by the piteous spectacle of the condemned men, one insensible and tied to a stretcher, one crying and being comforted by the whining pieties of a priest, and one resigned and somber. Their plight is contrasted with the rigidity accompanying the execution of the sentence—the stiff ranks of soldiers, the upright execution posts, the monotone beat of the drums, the two statuesque generals, Broulard and Mireau, the cart waiting with the caskets. The silence after the shots is suddenly filled with bird song, a kind of gentle “Amen,” brutally truncated by a cut to the chateau and Mireau’s relishing remark, “The men died wonderfully!” as he butters his breakfast croissant. Condemned men, of course, get fed. Generals go to watch executions on an empty stomach: it sharpens their appreciation.

The firing-squad scene is all the more stark at first viewing because Kubrick has previously, and very subtly, aroused false expectations that Broulard will intervene at the last minute to halt the affair. The night before, Dax has gone to the chateau to make a last plea for mercy. Characteristically, the camera finds the generals and their guests in the middle of a waltz and sidles deferentially in a smooth arc round the perimeter of the parquet until an aide informs Broulard of the colonel’s arrival—and then, unhurriedly, it sidles back again, playing up the feeling that men die at dawn, but generals dance at night. In the hush of the library, the self-possession of the urbane Broulard, who has treated Dax’s plea almost as a faux pas in military protocol, is severely shaken, just as he is about to bow himself back to his guests. As Broulard places his hand on the doorknob, Dax reveals that Mireau was ready to order artillery fire on his own men. The door snaps closed, betraying the snap of surprise in the general’s mind. Menjou (Broulard) blinks—one of the most potent of his battery of fastidious effects. He sees the risk of scandal to the high command. By using a slow fade-out after the message has got through to Broulard, Kubrick implies that military vengeance will now be tempered by expedient mercy. Throughout the rest of the film he has frequently used direct cuts from sequence to sequence. This device, not so commonplace in 1957 as it has since become, stretches the story line out tight and confers an inexorable logic on events. But Kubrick avoids it at this point, and allows the scene to fade on a close-up of Dax’s face and a shot of Broulard impassively taking his leave of Dax, a stratagem that adds doubt to the suspense about the execution, which follows. Of course, the finality of the act, without the anticipated reprieve, is another well-planned device. We realize over the generals’ breakfast that what Broulard decided was not to save the three scapegoats, but to add a fourth to them— Mireau, whom he now throws to a court of inquiry, although with the fair certainty that he will “honorably” blow his brains out before things get that far. The outrage to human decency is compounded to the utmost limits when Broulard offers Dax the expendable general’s job, with a congratulatory murmur at having intrigued so well for it. With this cynical old man’s utter inability to tell the difference between an act of humanity and a bid for promotion, Paths of Glory delivers its final moral shock.

Kubrick’s problem now is how to end the film with some sense of catharsis. He solved it in an allusive, indirect way that intensified its deeply humanist resonance. By a deliberate change of key, he puts an unfocused but powerful emotional experience in the place of the austere cynicism of the rest of the film. As Dax returns to his quarters after his interview with Broulard, he stops momentarily in the doorway of a tavern, where a captured German girl is being made to sing to the troops. With obvious distaste he sees the muddled animal sentiments on the faces of men whose comrades have been shot like pigs a few hours earlier. If Broulard was wrong when he quipped, “There’s nothing so stimulating to a soldier than seeing someone else die,” then these men whistling lecherously at the frightened girl also give the lie to Dax’s faith in humanity. The girl is coerced into nervously starting a song. Gradually she asserts herself through the wolf calls, and though the words are in German, their undertones of memories of homeland and loved ones soften the battle-hardened soldiers and set them humming the melody. Dax’s mind ceases to judge them. The sound reaches his heart as a guarantee of their basic humanity. He carries it within him, sustaining him, as news comes that the army has been ordered to the front. Man is capable of the noblest as well as the basest of emotions. “We know,” wrote Hollis Alpert, who found this moment profoundly moving, “that Colonel Dax and his soldiers have made their odyssey and returned home safely.”

Paths of Glory is a film held so truly on course and with such a confident balance between characters, casting, and moral and physical ambiance that its ideas on inhumanity and injustice permeate dramatically, not didactically, the nature of the events. It has not one weak sequence. If the scenes describing the three condemned men’s captivity are cruder than the rest, this is because the emotions conveyed are cruder than those underlying the sophisticated double-talk of the generals—and also because the American accents of the cast are more obtrusive in their attempt to portray French peasants or the middle class. All the same, Kubrick and his coscenarists, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, do come up with a crudely effective irony, as when one of the victims laments that a common cockroach will be nearer his wife than he will because “we’ll be dead, it’ll be alive.” And his comrade squashes the cockroach with the quip, “Now you got the edge on it.”

Paths of Glory is the first Kubrick film in which the characters’ relationship to their surroundings is more than physical. The architecture embodies them and their follies in a metaphorical sense, too. There was no real architectural design in either Killer’s Kiss or The Killing, though it has been noted how the camera singled out everyday objects in Killer’s Kiss and used them as visual shorthand comments on the inner lives of the boy and girl. But in Paths of Glory, and even more in Dr. Strangelove and in 2001, the sets for the first time assume a dynamic role as part of the total concept, usually a role that is hostile or cynically disposed to the human fates that are being settled under their shadow. In each of these three major films the principal setting is one which the dominant regime has constructed in its own image, rather in the way that Hitler’s growing pretensions to extend his rule over space and time in his “Thousand-Year Reich” were encapsulated in the architecture designed and, in some cases, built for him by Albert Speer.3 The château in Paths of Glory, the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, and the Wheel in 2001 represent Kubrick’s most distinctive ways of using a created environment to contain, define, and dominate the protagonists. Paths of Glory enables us to pick this characteristic out very clearly. As well as being a simpler film, architecturally, than the later ones, it contains a distinctive example of how Kubrick repeats a set-up in order to emphasize the relationship between the men and their setting. The first time this occurs is when Colonel Dax demands the right to speak out in defense of the men who have finally been selected as scapegoats: he exits through the tall doors at the extreme right of the “frame,” and the heavy elegance of the walls and ceiling bears down on his isolation. Virtually the same composition is used later, in the chateau library, when Dax turns the tables on General Broulard by revealing Mireau’s duplicity, and his military superior bows himself out through the door to go back to his ballroom guests, with an ominous pensiveness. This composition occurs a third time when General Mireau in his turn is made a scapegoat by Broulard at the breakfast table and, choking with fury and fear, walks through the right-hand door, a departure that has the finality of a last exit into the wings. Kubrick’s attitude to architecture reflects the influence of certain Teutonic traits in his work; for the creation of an architectural ambiance that is far more than surface effect and penetrates to the inner meaning of the action is one of the strongest characteristics of Old High German cinema, the cinema in existence before Hitler killed it. Of course, Kubrick had a German art director in Paths of Glory; and another designer who was German by birth, though British by adoption, was his associate on Dr. Strangelove. But his awareness of the metaphysical sense of the setting derives from his own nature, rather than reflecting the national characteristics of his collaborators. The realist tradition of the American cinema counteracts any danger of his being pulled into mere decorative expressionism or baroque effects for their own sake, in the German manner. In the same way, his brilliant use of lighting effects—a skill that has obvious links with German directors like Fritz Lang and Paul Leni—is tempered by his insistence that the illumination must issue from a realistic source. Paths of Glory shows us fully for the first time the concern with space and lighting that Kubrick was to build more and more organically into his movies.

Paths of Glory is a realist’s view of war, not a propagandist’s. As has already been remarked, it is not a film against war, except in that it depicts the horrors of war. Dax executes orders that horrify him and leads an attack that he knows is bound to fail with immense loss of life. But the point is, he does execute the orders and he does lead the attack. The fact that the story portrays an incident in the 1914-1918 war helps Kubrick’s intentions. For there are wars and wars. World War One was, according to historical consensus, one of the most unnecessary conflicts ever fought—a war without a just cause, breaking out almost by monstrous accident and achieving almost nothing except the conditions for the next world war. The madness of nations and their leaders characterized it; no “moral” struggle, such as underlay World War Two, can be discerned in it. A frame of reference like this is highly sympathetic to a man of Kubrick’s temperament, for individual acts performed inside a situation of lunacy take on his peculiar reverberations of irony, cynicism, and doom. Democratic government is a bad springboard for human drama; unjust or insane conditions are better forcing beds for the protagonists. Paths of Glory profits directly and indirectly from this condition of collective insanity in which the actions of the principal characters are attuned not only to the inequalities that prevail among men when the world is at peace but also to the insanity that breaks loose In wartime.

In the latter respect, only the scale differentiates it from the war world of Dr. Strangelove. A more colossal series of insane events demands a more grotesque cast of obsessed characters. And instead of revulsion at the way the generals in World War One sacrificed their men for political reasons, a kind of helpless laughter is the only appropriate response to the enormity of the holocaust as world leaders prepare to sacrifice the very existence of the human race. “The visual concept of, say, a ‘Summit’ conference and a hydrogen bomb exploding one city is only taking Paths of Glory‘s contrast of the château and the trenches a stage further,” analyzed Gavin Lambert in Sight and Sound in 1957. It was an astute and, as it turned out, prescient observation.


1. Partly, too, Kubrick’s placing of Ophuls at the top of his list of directors whom he particularly admired, in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview, July, 1957.

2. Composer Alex North contributes a wry memoir in this respect in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel (New York: Signet Books/New American Library, 1968), p. 199.

3. Speer’s memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, made a strong impression on Kubrick when he read them, and one can easily see why in the story of a “superman” regime brought to ruin by a self-fulfilling curse, by the many black-comedy moments and especially by the way Speer confirms Kubrick’s thesis about the gulf that modern technology creates between reality and the fantasy of those who control it.

Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs, 1972


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