Paths of Glory: Screening the Novel

While Kubrick and writers Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson have changed the focus and toned down some of his narrative’s brutality, Cobb yet remains the ultimate source of the film’s drama and of most of its ideas.
Paths of Glory (1957) Execution scene


Paths of Glory
(1935, Humphrey Cobb)

Paths of Glory
(1957, Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick, who directed the film of Paths of Glory, is one of the most respected of contemporary directors, and he is certainly deserving of the praise showered on him by critics and film scholars. However, the record of commentary on this film points up a central weakness in the “auteur” theory that credits him with primary responsibility for the film’s content1: in discussions of what is generally referred to as “Kubrick’s Paths of Glory,” no mention is made of Humphrey Cobb’s novel, from which is derived much of the film’s power, as well as its basic story.2 While Kubrick and writers Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson have changed the focus and toned down some of his narrative’s brutality, Cobb yet remains the ultimate source of the film’s drama and of most of its ideas.

In April of 1934 Cobb, deciding that he was tired of his desk job at an advertising agency, sat down to write a novel; in August he completed Paths of Glory. Upon its publication, various critics predicted wide sales, and the Book-of-the-Month Club adopted it as its main selection for June of 1935. The book seemed to have the makings of a best-seller, but after selling well for a few weeks, it quietly disappeared. Cobb never published another novel—perhaps he felt he didn’t need to, for all of his feelings about war are explicitly represented in this one short, powerful, and highly emotional work. Cobb (who died in 1944 at the age of 45) would probably have been pleased that his one novel was translated to film by so great a director as Kubrick, who, while changing some of the narrative emphases, yet managed to create from it one of the most memorable anti-war films ever made.

Humphrey Cobb was the son of distinguished parents: his father, Arthur M. Cobb, an artist, and his mother, Alice Littell Cobb, a physician, were both Bostonians, who were, at the time of their son’s birth (on September 5, 1899, in Siena) living in Florence, Italy, in a house once owned by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Cobbs remained in Florence until Humphrey was thirteen, in the meantime sending him to school in England. In 1913 the family returned to America, where Humphrey attended school three years before being expelled for insubordination. In September, 1916, he went to Montreal, enlisted in the Canadian forces and sailed from Halifax the following April. Because of his youth, he was held in England for a year, but then was sent to the front, where he saw a great deal of action with the Royal Montreal Regiment of the First Canadian Division. Twice he was gassed slightly and, according to his own account, “mildly annoyed because he was hit by various pieces of flying metal but never properly wounded.”3

The war that Cobb fought was a totally horrific experience for which none of the participants—statesmen, generals, or soldiers—were prepared: the European leaders who had driven their countries into conflict had not foreseen either the extent or the duration of the blood bath that would follow. It was a war that no one really knew how to fight: professional soldiers were unprepared for technological warfare; generals, unable to cope with the vastly increased firepower of machine war, failed to stock enough ammunition to carry out their initiatives. Stanley Cooperman explains, “Only in World War II did the machine achieve mobility; in 1914 officers thought in terms of infantry, of cavalry, of ‘flanking,’ of ‘advance,’ of ‘engagement.’ ”4 As a result of such ineptness of command, many of the major battles resulted in staggering numbers of casualties for no tangible accomplishment—the battle of Verdun saw the killing of a million men and yet the position of the front line did not change.

The generals did not seem to be aware, either, of the tactical application of the weapons at their disposal. Céline wrote, in Journey to the End of Night, “Everyone queued up to go and get killed,” and Cooperman draws the inference: “It was a war of determined but absurd blood letting, a senseless reiteration of futility and callousness.”5 It was a war of attrition, a degrading, filthy experience, reducing men to the level of “human cattle. ” There could be no dignity even in death, for, as Cooperman points out, under the conditions of modern warfare,

. . . “fighting” became a passive rather than an active procedure; the vast majority of casualties on both sides was incurred among soldiers who at the moment of their deaths were either groveling on the earth, fighting desperately among themselves for shelter, or playing interminable games of cards in trenches or rear-echelon posts. The man was separated from the act; the potential hero could be—and often was—splattered by a stray shell under circumstances that had nothing whatever to do with soldiering.6

Paths of Glory is a grimly realistic account of the physical wretchedness of trench warfare—the mud, the inability to move, the stench of the battlefield—all is revealed with an eye for detail that few war novels can match. Cobb also captures the crippling, paralyzing effects of fear and emotional exhaustion. Ultimately, however, the sheer brutality of the spectacle is subordinated to his main theme, the exposure of the absurd and tragic gap between the officers and the enlisted men. Few American war novels have so damned the military power structure.

His narrative’s vivid evocation of the ugliness of warfare and of the psychology of the soldier no doubt reflects Cobb’s own war experience, but the plot of the novel is based on a true incident reported of the French army. Cobb’s fictional re-creation was inspired by an article in The New York Times in 1934, headlined “French Acquit Five Shot for Mutiny in 1915; Widows of Two Win Awards of Seven Cents Each,” and by an account in a French journal by a widow who had managed to clear her husband’s name and had been awarded token damages by the French government.7

Some details of the actual story are changed for the novel: the real Company Five becomes the 181st Regiment, the evil of command is personalized in the figure of General Assolant, and the story involves the execution of three men rather than five. The novel consists of three chapters, which determine its structure: the first introduces the principal characters, the regiment, and the larger arena of the war; the second describes the futile attack on “the Pimple,” a German-held position which the French command feels it must capture; the third describes the procedures of the court martial, for cowardice, and subsequent execution of the three soldiers.

Briefly the novel focuses on the 181st Regiment, which has been withdrawn from the trenches for a much-needed rest. A communique arrives at command headquarters, mistakenly announcing the capture of the seemingly impregnable German position known as “the Pimple.” Because the army commander wishes to avoid the embarrassing situation of correcting an official communique, he orders General Assolant, division commander of the sector, to take the hill within forty-eight hours. The 181st is called back from its prospective leave and ordered to attack. Meeting with heavy German fire, the soldiers find it impossible to advance, and most of them are killed, some even before they can leave the trenches. Outraged over the failure of the attack and primarily concerned for his own reputation, the general accuses his men of cowardice, thereby setting them up as scapegoats for the incompetence and the inhumanity of himself and his superiors in the hierarchy of command. After some cold­blooded calculation of appropriate numbers of sacrifices and some accommodation of political and personal influences, three soldiers are eventually executed and proclaimed “examples” to the remaining survivors of the attack.

In an appreciation of Paths of Glory, Warren Eyster tells of his asking William Faulkner if he had read the novel: “He answered rather testily that Humphrey Cobb was a hack journalist, hardly worth serious discussion.”8 The book was, however, in Faulkner’s library, and he did admire it enough to borrow from it incidents and characters for his novel, A Fable (1954),9 which is also set in World War I and deals with the failure of a French regiment to attack an impregnable German position. Faulkner’s peevish dismissal, a characteristic evasion through half-truths, probably stemmed from a feeling that the novel was not literary enough, in the sense that it lacked the aesthetic depths of psychological complexity, symbolic structure, tonal variation. Eyster, too, takes the novel to task for lacking the scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the thematic and formal resonances of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and the archetypal significance of Hemingway’s war novels.

This is not entirely correct, for there is some symbolic structure in Cobb’s novel, and, although the narrative is, for the most part, quite direct, it certainly transcends mere reportage. Indeed, it has the ability, as L. H. Titerton observed, to sweep “the reader off his feet by the sheer force of its truthfulness.”10 Cobb’s description of the attack on the Pimple is an illustration of this power:

Whistles sounded along the jumping-off line.

Charpentier climbed onto the smoking parapet, shouting and waving to his men to follow. He stood there, waving and shouting, an heroic-looking figure, fit for any recruiting poster. He did not feel heroic, though. All he felt was the blister on his heel and the intoxication of the vibration all about him.

Men started to scramble over the parapet, slipping, clawing, panting. Charpentier turned to lead the way. The next instant his decapitated body fell into his own trench.

Four other bodies followed right after his, knocking over some of the men who were trying to get out. Three times the men of Number 2 Company attempted to advance, and each time the parapet was swept clean by the deadly machine-gun fire. It couldn’t be done, that was all. The men, with one accord, decided to wait.11

Cobb’s vision is one of total despair; the greatest enemy of man is man, and there is nothing redeeming in nature. Unlike Hemingway’s heroes, who can find solace within themselves or in some code of dignity and professionalism, Cobb’s characters find only silence or further confrontation with the absurdity that war represents. His tragic perspective is clearly displayed early in the novel: Lieut. Paolacci, temporarily in command of Number 2 Company, is leading his troops on a patrol when they are surprised by explosives dropping around them, and Cobb invests the scene with dramatic, Poe-esque imagery, reminiscent especially of “The Pit and the Pendulum’’ in terms both of description and of theme. The dominant landmark which the company is patrolling is a chalk pit, “a circular excavation situated in the southeast right angle formed by the intersection of the road and the narrow-gauge track’’ (p. 37). When the explosives start, Paolacci is hit, and Cobb’s description is graphic and obviously allusive: “It tore through his pelvis, carried his whole right hip away, and knocked him over the edge into the chalk pit. He tumbled down, down, down . . .” (p. 40)—the effect recalls that in the “Descent into the Maelstrom,” as Poe’s narrator falls “down, down, down” into darkness, into the realms of chaos and the absurd where one becomes overwhelmed by visions of despair. The narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” significantly, is more terrified of the pit than of any of the tortures his captors have prepared for him, for he instinctively knows that it hides the greatest terrors, the darkest knowledge. When Paolacci wakens, he finds himself in the pit; the moon reveals rats (another Poe echo), and the “smell of horse dung” fills his nostrils. Panicking, he screams out: “For the love of Christ! Help help! Tm dying. I’m all alone. . . . Here, in the chalk pit! Jesus!” (p. 45), but “his shrieks echoed back and forth on the walls of the chalk pit.” Man is alone, and his prayers for help are unheeded.

Like Poe’s narrator, Paolacci wants to measure the outlines of his world (the rational mind persists in believing in reason), but he, too, only discovers further horrors. In one of the most moving and terrifying scenes Tn the novel, Cobb’s descriptive facility combines with a distinctly macabre sensibility to suggest the grotesque situation of man and the absurdity of his fate:

Paolacci began to feel the pain in his shoulder. He also felt a lump between his shoulder blades. He realized he wanted to get up and climb out of the pit, then waited for the desire to become more impelling. While waiting, his right hand began to move in exploration. It came in contact with the obstruction wedged against his cheek. His [sic] pushed and it gave way, the smell of horse dung receding with it. He moved his head gingerly to look at the thing. It was his own boot, unmistakably. How did it get there, near his face? He formulated the will to straighten his leg out, but there was no response. His hand moved downwards, feeling over his own body. . . . He groped for his thigh and couldn’t find it. Instead, his hand entered an enormous, sticky cavity which seemed lined with sharp points. . . .

Gradually with weary patience and persistence which was constantly being thwarted by waves of silent delirium, he untangled the chaos of his life. He had been hit by that shell. … In falling into the chalk pit, his leg had been buckled back diagonally under him, and he was now lying on it, with his left cheek against his own heel.

. . . Fever was rising in him, giving comfort to his body and ineffable peace to his mind. The terror of being alone and helpless had gone. He closed his eyes the better to appreciate the delights of his hallucinations. . . .

Later still, when the shadow cast by the moon was rising again on the side of the chalk pit, a rat climbed noiselessly up the jamb of the gallery entrance and watched Paolacci for a while. Then it stepped forward daintily, jumped onto the lieutenant’s chest and squatted there. It looked to the right and to the left, two or three times, quickly, then lowered his head and began to eat Paolacci’s under lip. (pp.46-47)

Paolacci has explored hell and discovered the inadequacy of his own body; the world is revealed as a mud hole infested with rats; death, not dignity, God or nature, is man’s only refuge. (This passage nearly anticipates the “Snowden’s secret” episode of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, although in Cobb’s universe there is no Yossarian to benefit from the “secret,” but only the rats, and the surrounding darkness.)

Nature, here, is indifferent, seeming to mock man’s misery. The central action of the novel takes place in the spring, which indeed becomes the “cruelest” season, holding back its gifts and appearing even to conspire to make things worse: the continual rains only create mud, which impedes movement and frustrates activity. Instead, it is man’s death which contributes to the flowering of spring: “Langlois saw that it was really spring. He saw the delicate blades of grass which the bodies of his comrades had fertilized” (p. 65). Langlois, a man of poetic temperament, sees nothing comforting in nature:

He saw the smoke-puffs of shrapnel being blown about by light breezes. He saw birds making love in the wire that a short while before had been ringing with flying metal. He heard the pleasant sound of larks up there, near the zenith of the trajectories. He smiled a little. There was something profoundly saddening about it. It all seemed so fragile and so absurd, (pp. 65-66)

This natural beauty is counterpointed with the horror that man has created, the grisly spectacle of destruction. A soldier, entering his first battle, is surrounded by its sights and sounds, as Cobb’s very cinematic novel offers the equivalent of a subjective shot:

The star shells were becoming fewer, but the light remained nonetheless. The bombardment was now drumfire, and the air was heavy with the smell of explosives. It was getting harder to see the flashes of the detonations because the darkness of the night was thinning. But the earth continued to jump and rock, and whole sections of trench caved in, crumbled and lay still, smoking a little. The wire zinged to the flying metal and chunks of it, thrown aloft by the shells, came down and fell into the trench, (p. 64)

Because death is so omnipresent, there is no real state of innocence in Cobb’s world. Trapped in the absurdity of trench warfare, man cannot hope for survival; Eyster writes, “Death was a lottery with a daytime and nighttime quota of six to the hour, with a higher risk rate, of course, during the sunrise bombardments. ”12 In an exchange with a fellow soldier before the attack on the Pimple, Langlois claims that he would rather be gunned down than bayonetted, which, he says, “proves that most of us are more afraid of getting hurt than of getting killed’’ (p. 94). This man’s contemplation of death, especially his comment that he would like to die because “it’s the only absolute thing in life. It has a mystery and perfection all its own,’’ becomes very ironic, for he will be selected for execution, a victim of the military structure’s arrogant refusal to deal with a simple bureaucratic error. Langlois will discover that his death has no mystery, and that his life is regarded as meaningless.

If trench warfare and the absurd conditions of the universe are subjects for Cobb’s despair, man’s contempt for his fellow man, embodied in the inhumanity of the military power structure, is the focus of his anger. The book bums with rage, the intensity of his indignation proving at once the novel’s central weakness and the source of its great power.

The army’s general staff is here accused and convicted of a total disregard for human life: the soldier is simply a pawn in the staff’s war games, which are played to win promotions and decorations. General Assolant, the man ordered to see that the Pimple is taken, reflects this callous attitude when plotting the attack with Col. Dax, who is in charge of the 181st regiment:

. . . Say, five per cent killed by their own barrage (a very generous allowance, that). Ten per cent lost in crossing no- man’s-land, and twenty per cent more in getting through the wire. That left sixty-five per cent, and the worst part of the job over, the most exposed part. (p. 82)

The men are, in his mind, mere statistics: waste and destruction are so commonplace that death is hardly noticed. Indeed, the condition of the men almost bears him out: they are walking automatons, emotionally and physically drained. Langlois describes them early in the novel:

. . . look at their faces. See that sort of greyish tint to their skin? That’s not from sitting in a cafe on a Sunday afternoon.
. . . Take a look at their eyes. They’re open, but they have the look of not seeing much of anything. They’ve had it tough, all right. Their eyes are glazed. They’re nearly all of them constipated. . . . (p. 8)

Assolant is obsessed with the idea of taking the Pimple and winning his star. During the battle he becomes so enraged at the troops’ failure to advance that he orders one of his divisions to fire on his own men, but the battery commander refuses. The attack, impossible to begin with, is over in half an hour; the regiment has been decimated, but the battle positions remain unchanged.

Still indignant, Assolant places the surviving remainder of the regiment under arrest, directing them to await punishment at the Chateau de l’Aigle. The site chosen is significant of his punitive intention, already settled:

It was the place where the President of the Republic, no less, would pin the star of a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour on General of Division Assolant’s right breast. What more fitting then, than that those who had cost him his star should pay the debt on the same ground. The woods would make a good backstop for the execution posts and there was plenty of room for the regiment to form in three-sided square so that no one would miss the spectacle, (p. 111)

His utter disregard for the lives of his soldiers is again made apparent when he starts dickering about how many men should be shot as examples: declaring at first that he will execute one entire section from each company, he is bargained down, by a more rational superior, to twelve, and ultimately settles for one man from each of the four companies. When Col. Dax objects to the procedure and suggests that he only be shot as an example, General de Guerville replies, “I think you’re overwrought. It isn’t a question of officers.’’ (p. 117)

The process of choosing the scapegoats is equally arbitrary and equally obscene. Selection is left to the company commanders, each of whom reacts differently to the responsibility. Didier, a brave soldier, is picked by his commander, Lt. Roget, because he has witnessed Roget’s cowardice during a night patrol, which directly resulted in the death of the third member of that patrol; Didier’s death will effectively silence him and keep Rogers reputation secure, at least for the moment. Sancy, another company commander, chooses his victim in a scientifically detached way, actually enjoying dealing with the problem, and the prospect of playing God. When his aide, Arnaud, criticizes him for the injustice of his approach, Sancy replies,

“Who said anything about justice? There’s no such thing. But injustice is as much a part of life as the weather. And you’re getting away from the point again. He isn’t being shot for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s being shot as an example. That’s his contribution to the winning of the war. An heroic one, too, if you like.” (p. 139)

He narrows his choice down to Férol and Meyer because both are social undesirables, people who will not be “needed” by France after the war; Meyer (child molester, syphilitic, and a Jew) seems more undesirable, but Sancy finally picks Férol (mentally defective and a chronic alcoholic) because he is afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism and possibly involving the army in another Dreyfus affair. Langlois is the third man selected—his company has simply drawn lots, and his is the “winner. ” Capt. Renouart, the fourth commander, refuses to participate, insisting there were no cowards in his unit, and because his name is the same as that of a high-ranking politician to whom it is feared he might be related; this refusal is allowed, and no fourth victim is designated.

The court martial, too, is a mockery of justice: no indictment is read, no transcript kept. The men are forced to admit that they did not advance, but no extenuating circumstances are permitted mention. The defense attorney is not even allowed to call witnesses to testify as to the men’s good character. The formalities are carried out quickly and efficiently, the men summarily convicted of cowardice and sentenced to death by firing squad.

In jail, waiting to die, the men are individualized in their responses to the situation. Férol remains brutishly passive, apparently uncaring, and is only concerned with smoking and drinking. Langlois’ letter to his wife is the one tender, and fully human, moment in the novel:

We love each other and we have constructed, from two lives, one life together, one which is ours, which is wholly of ourselves, which is our most precious possession, a beautiful, satisfying thing, intangible but more real, more necessary than anything else in life. We have applied our effort and intelligence to building, expanding, and keeping the structure in repair. Somebody suddenly steps in, not caring, not even knowing who we are, and in an instant has reduced our utterly private relationship to a horrible ruin, mangled and bleeding and aching with pain. (p. 187)

Obviously, in the universe of Paths of Glory, this isolated island of two is the only prospect for human happiness, and it is a tragically vulnerable one. Didier, too, writes to his wife, describing Roget’s cowardice and explaining that he has been framed. His anger and frustration erupt in violence when a priest comes to offer the men last rites. Langlois refuses, preferring to ‘dive through this night alone,” but Didier, enraged at the priest’s empty pieties, kicks him in the stomach. Langlois tries to subdue him, and eventually Didier is knocked unconscious by a guard, who also breaks his leg.

This mishap does not, however, delay the execution. Langlois, before being led out, observes that “fear and pain are the complete neutralizers of sexuality”; earlier he has noted that battle conditions similarly affect the bowels— “when men get scared they get tense and things inside them solidify. Functions stop.” (p. 8) Caught up in the inhuman circumstances of war, man clearly ceases to be human, and it does not matter that Didier’s injury now renders him insensible, for he has become no more than a beast for the sacrifice, conveniently objectified and at the disposal of his “superiors.” Cobb’s naturalistic imagery enforces the point: after the execution, Didier’s lifeless body is described as looking “like a pack animal that had collapsed and perished under the weight of its burden. ”

The execution scene is a model of realistic-emotional description, peculiarly cinematic in its attention to detail and in Cobb’s technique of cutting between drum rolls, the tying of the prisoners to the posts, the feelings and looks of the prisoners. The situation is directly symbolic: “Of the three, Didier more nearly maintained the illusion that a crucifixion was in progress”; Langlois remarks, “Those posts make it look like the Crucifixion, don’t they? And if we keep in this order, it will be Férol who will play the role of Christ” (p. 203). (Faulkner would be heavily influenced by this scene when he described the death of the corporal in A Fable.) At last Langlois himself assumes the significant posture in the moving passage of description that follows the fatal volley:

One bullet had struck Langlois in the leg and he began to sag in that direction. His ropes had not been cleanly cut by the volley which had ripped through his intestines and lungs and he was left dangling there, his arms caught to the post. He wavered a little, grotesque and pitiable, as if pleading to be released, then slipped a little farther down so that he seemed to be abjectly embracing and imploring his post. (p. 207)

At this point the novel concludes abruptly upon the delivery of the coup de grâce.

Cobb would publish a serialized novella, None But the Brave, in Colliers in 1938, which contains a number of stirring battle scenes and descriptions of men under fire. Undercut, however, by some formula plot devices involving a menage a trois and the friendship of two men, it lacks the power of contained emotion that distinguishes Paths of Glory. In Cobb’s obituary The New York Times reported that he left an unpublished manuscript entitled “November 11, 1918: The Story of the Armistice”; in addition, he spent some time in Hollywood and shares screen credit (with Peter Milne) on the film San Quentin (Warner s, 1937), which starred Hum­phrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien and Ann Sheridan. At the time of his death, he was working for an advertising firm in New York City.

His lone novel has remained influential, providing material that other writers could use and shape for their own purposes—reflections of its narrative situation may be seen not only in A Fable, but also in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which also deals with a futile assault on a mountain. Paths of Glory itself, finally, was dramatized for the stage by Sidney Howard and filmed by Stanley Kubrick. Cobb’s was a small legacy, but a powerful and affecting one.

Two major changes, one a structural re-emphasis in the highlighting of a single protagonist, and the other a revised perspective on the story’s ending, constitute the principal influence of Kubrick and his writers in transferring Cobb’s novel to the screen. Col. Dax, a distinctly peripheral figure in the novel, becomes the film’s central character (played by Kirk Douglas), and his personality is modified to suit the larger function. In the novel he is not portrayed as the brave, idealistic man he becomes in the film; in fact, Cobb first describes him as nearly overwhelmed with the dread of battle:

Neither Vignon nor anybody else suspected for a moment that Dax, colonel of the 181st Regiment of the line, of the crack Assolant Division, next on the list for a general’s stars and a promotion in the Legion of Honour, four times cited for bravery in Army Orders—no one suspected for a moment, so well did Dax conceal the fact, that he was in a state of fear which was rapidly turning into panic, (pp. 29-30)

This fearful tendency never surfaces in the film, where Dax alone seems entirely fearless. In the film, he also assumes the function of the prisoners’ attorney—at one point he is described as “one of the leading lawyers in France. ” By means of such dramatic condensation, Kubrick thus switches the central emphasis from the men (Cobb’s focus) to Dax, who serves as a convenient mediator between the two opposed worlds of the film, the world of command and the world of the soldier.

Kubrick also adds a coda to Cobb’s ending: concluding savagely upon the coup de grâce after the execution, the novel leaves the reader emotionally drained, angry and shocked by the senseless killing, but Kubrick chooses to carry on the story beyond this point. In the film, General Mireau (Assolant in the novel; played by George Macready) is informed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) that there will be an inquiry into his order to fire on his own troops. When Mireau leaves, the audience knows that he has been disgraced and that he will certainly resign and perhaps even kill himself; some retribution is offered as a consolation for the murder of the men just witnessed. This is followed by a scene in a tavern where the soldiers are introduced to a frightened German girl (played by Susanne Christian, Mrs. Stanley Kubrick), a refugee, and the only German character to appear in the film. The men at first behave like animals, hooting and whistling, but when the girl begins to sing a song (about a mother hearing of the death of her son in war) the men quiet down and then join in, some beginning to weep. Kubrick thus softens the novel’s harsh conclusion by closing with a scene which emphasizes the common humanity of all these victims of the brutalities of modem warfare.

Kubrick structures his film in the contrast between two settings; that of the grand chateau where the commanding officers live and devise their vicious strategies amid the splendor contrived by the equally tyrannical and unfeeling aristocracy of another era, and that of the trenches, confined and filthy, where the soldiers live and wait to die. The film opens, ironically, with the Marseillaise, played ominously as the credits appear against a black background; then a title appears on the screen: “France, 1916.” Next a narrator sets the scene for the audience (a favorite device of Kubrick’s, this opening narration recurs in The Killing [1956], Spartacus [1960], Dr. Strangelove [1964], A Clockwork Orange [1971], and Barry Lyndon [1975]), telling of Germany’s attack on France and of France’s brave countermeasures, which have succeeded in reversing earlier losses: by 1916, “after two years of grisly trench warfare, the battle lines have changed very little. Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards and paid for by hundreds of thousands of lives. ”

The narration is spoken over a shot of the chateau, as a squad of soldiers form two neat columns in front of the door. The emphasis on military symmetry and precision, strict in its inhuman formalities, quickly becomes a visual metaphor for the world of the chateau; as he will later do in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick focuses his camera insistently on the stiff, almost statuesque compositions emblematic of a world which can transform men into columns, supportive, in the architectural sense, of the “glory” and the grandeur of these new despots of the post-revolutionary society. This suggestion of a new feudalism, embodied in the army hierarchy and mirrored in the incongruous elegance of the chateau, is subtly confirmed when Gen. Broulard enters the room: as he strides through the door in an assured, military manner, he seems utterly at home in this environment, and he adopts its privileges easily, handing his coat and hat to a soldier/servant behind him without a glance, secure in the knowledge that some underling (walking coat rack) will be there to attend to his needs.

After some greetings and a smug reference to the luxury of his surroundings, Broulard tells Mireau that he wants him to take the Anthill (the Pimple of the novel). At first Mireau refuses, saying that his men are exhausted, but Broulard flatters him and whets his ambition with the possibility of a promotion. (Here, taking the Anthill is a direct order, not the result of a bureaucratic mishap, as in the novel.) This sequence is interestingly shot: as Broulard speaks, he leads

Mireau around the spacious room in a choreographed, winding pattern, suggesting how Mireau is being led morally astray (he requires little prompting). Kubrick’s camera follows them in increasingly widening circuits which emphasize the dizzying grandeur of the setting (an echo of German expressionism?—the film was shot in Germany) as Mireau moves further and further away from reason.

Kubrick then cuts from the chateau to the trenches, introduced by a binocular view of the Anthill (this shot will be repeated four times in the film to emphasize the distance of the command from the actual fields of battle). The trenches, naturally, comprise a direct antithesis to the elegant chateau world; their shape, narrow and rudely linear, confines the camera to a graceless tracking movement as it explores the chute-like path. The contrasting patterns of movement appro­priate to the two major settings here points to another strain of visual imagery by which Kubrick underlines the unequal nature of the military society: restricted to simple, relatively safe lateral moves within the trench itself or the tentative, and usually fatal, forward plunges necessary for attack, the infantry soldiers are the pawns in a great, destructive chess game; conveniently characterless and featureless (the word “pawn” is, in fact, derived from a medieval Latin term for “foot soldier”), they are considered readily expendable in the service of the ornately variegated figures, more powerful in their complex movements, who line up behind them, directing the combat in their own interest. Of a strictly quantitative importance in the game, the soldier/pawns exist only to be sacrificed, their neat columns of formation providing at the beginning a solid front which is to be disordered and decimated in the maneuvering for tactical victory.

Abruptly transported from the chateau’s baroque spaciousness to this cramped and constrained trough of the pawns, Mireau is next seen touring the trench in an apparent attempt to bolster his troops’ morale. Self-conscious and clearly out of place, he greets individual soldiers with unvarying condescension: “Hello, soldier, ready to kill more Germans?” Two of the men he speaks to, Férol (Timothy Carey) and Paris (Ralph Meeker), will later be executed at Mireau’s orders, while the third, Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), is in the frame during a third confrontation: thus Kubrick deftly introduces the victims (although his audience, on a first viewing of the film, is ironically no more likely than Mireau himself to recognize the individuality of these men).

Mireau then enters the dugout of Col. Dax, whose “residence” echoes the confinement of the trenches. Kubrick frames the scene to emphasize Dax’s integration with his surroundings: despite his status as an officer, he obviously belongs in the world of the soldier. Mireau, on the other hand, is uncomfortable in Dax’s dugout, continually crouching, his elegant uniform endangered by falling debris. In addition, he is forced to speak to Dax from behind, because of the lack of space, and several medium and close shots in the sequence re-emphasize the confinement of Dax’s headquarters as opposed to the expansive elegance of Mireau’s. Here, too, Kubrick introduces another visual device that will recur throughout the film: many of the scenes of significant personal confrontation are shot in dark places with single sources of light. Dax’s dugout is lit only by an overhead lamp, beneath which Mireau is placed at times, causing the light to shine directly on his face with an eerie, and accusatory, effect (the light in these scenes is always directed upon the evil character, never on a protagonist).

During this scene, Mireau pressures Dax to agree to lead the assault on the Anthill by threatening to relieve him of his command if he refuses. Dax’s ennobling idealism is displayed twice, once when he objects to a remark made by the general’s aide (Richard Anderson) who compares the men to cattle, and again when he resists Mireau’s chauvinistic urging by scornfully quoting Dr. Johnson’s remark that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Also during this meeting, Mireau echoes Assolant’s speech in the novel about the percentage of casualties to be expected, and again the callousness of command is stressed. (Kubrick’s critics often praise this dialogue as one of the most effective scenes in the film, again failing to notice that it is taken directly from Cobb’s book.)

Kubrick eliminates most of Cobb’s battle sequences and reconnaissance missions, focusing instead almost exclusively on the gap between officer and soldier. He does, however, retain the night patrol episode involving Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris), Paris (Didier in the novel), and Lejeune (Ken Dibbs). The film’s plot here follows the novel closely: Paris has no respect for Roget, his former classmate, whom he knows to be a coward and a drunk, but Roget is an officer and so Paris must obey his orders. On the evening before the battle, they go out to scout no-mans-land; Roget is shown drinking heavily before the expedition. The sequence in no-mans-land is composed dramatically: the men crawl through the mud and wire at night, the camera occasionally shooting them from above to emphasize their smallness and the limitations of the body. Roget breaks up the patrol by sending Lejeune ahead, and soon a flare lights up the sky, giving the scene a nightmarish, camival-like quality. When Lejeune does not return immediately, Roget panics, hurling a grenade into the darkness and running back to the French lines. Paris, however, proceeds forward and finds Lejeune’s body in a hole, disfigured by the grenade. Next, Paris confronts Roget in his dugout, in a scene that parallels the earlier meeting between Dax and Mireau. Here, Paris accuses Roget of cowardice and murder, while Roget makes it plain that it would be difficult for an enlisted man to bring charges against an officer. Again, the exchange is shot in gloom, with a single light which shines, this time, on Roget.

The battle scene (the only one in the film) is justly famous. Just before it, the camera tracks behind Dax as he reviews the troops, at times even shooting subjectively, standing in for Dax (unlike Mireau, who strode along in the camera’s direct view, himself the object of attention, Dax actually notices the men themselves, his and the camera’s focus taking in their faces and their situation). The lighting is gray, and parts of the sequence are shot through smoke, from which the soldiers seem to loom grotesquely. The attack begins with Dax climbing a ladder and blowing his whistle to lead the charge. Kubrick shows the men pouring onto the field of battle, again making them seem ant-like in a high, overhead shot. Then he shifts to a side view of the troops sweeping across the open space, achieving an extraordinary double perspective in conveying at once a sense of documentary-like realism and a horror-inducing, expressionistic flavor. Long shots primarily capture the realistic effect, while some of the close-up shots have an orchestrated, ballet-like quality. In this sequence, too, Kubrick employs a handheld zoom lens, honing in on Dax, presenting much of the scene from his point of view as he watches his men being butchered and his ranks thinning out.

The sounds of the battle are effectively counterpointed against Dax’s whistle, which he blows defiantly but which seems frighteningly weak and futile against the thunderous barrage of gunfire and explosives. The attack on the Anthill, by implication, is as futile as trying to hear a whistle above the din of battle.

Another shot of the battlefield seen through binoculars provides the transition back to command headquarters, where Mireau is raving, calling his men “miserable cowards” because of their inability to advance. He orders an artillery captain to fire on the men, but the order is refused. Mireau then orders the company placed under arrest, as the scene shifts to the chateau. There, in the company of Broulard and Dax, he demands that the men be executed. (This is the first time Dax has been seen in the chateau, and, seated between Mireau and Broulard, he seems cramped and uncomfortable.) As in the novel, the officers bargain over the number of men to be killed (here Dax vainly defends the men), their purely quantitative interest in death recalling the pre-battle predic­tions of likely percentages of casualties. Finally it is decided that three men will be shot and that Dax will defend them at the court-martial.

The scene shifts to the prison, where Dax explains the situation to the prisoners; again a single source of light, this time sunlight streaming in through the cell windows, illuminates the sequence. The condemned soldiers differ somewhat from those in the novel: Paris is a combination of Didier (selected because Roget wants him out of the way) and Langlois (he has Langlois’ sensitivity and is given some of his lines in the film), and Arnaud, the soldier chosen by lot (Langlois in the novel), also possesses some of Langlois’ attributes, for he has been decorated for bravery and is articulate about his plight. Férol is based on the character of the same name in the novel (chosen because he is deemed a social undesirable, though here he is obviously not a serious deviant), but he lacks that original’s nihilistic and animalistic ways. In the novel, Férol is exclusively concerned with liquor and cigarettes, and he goes uncaring to his death, for never respecting life, he has no fear of death; in the film, he seems simple and a little slow, but he is enough afraid of dying to confess to the priest, and he walks to his execution clutching a rosary and sobbing uncontrollably. Kubrick thus induces immediate sympathy for all three victims because, not having concentrated on their characters earlier in the film, he must now force the audience to adopt them quickly as protagonists.

The court-martial is filmed skillfully so as to emphasize the inhumanity and the ritualistic, game-like quality of the proceedings: the prisoners are marched into a room at the chateau and seated at attention, each with guards in rigid attitudes on either side. The floor, with its black and white tiles in a chessboard pattern, provides a graphic reference to the power game to be played out here, and when the prisoners are called, singly, to approach the judges and speak, the camera shoots from in front of them, isolating the ineffectual, pawn-like movements, forward and back, to which they are restricted here as well as on the battlefield. The judges appear in shadow in front of the prisoners, while the camera also takes in the attentive guards behind them: the shot emphasizes their entrapment, for they seem caught between the judges and the guards, and entirely defenseless in their immobility. The officer who serves as prosecuting attorney, in contrast, is shown in front of the judges, whose backs are now in shadow, and, in a manner reminiscent of the sinuous progress of Broulard and Mireau as they strolled about, conspiring together, in the film’s opening scene, this man, the deputy of their arrogant and selfish authority, is now seen winding easily around the table, supremely confident that he will win the case. Dax, on the other hand, is shot from a low angle, his exaggerated physical stature reflecting his moral superiority; his concluding argument is viewed from behind him as he walks between the prisoners and the bench, attempting vainly to connect the two worlds between which he is the only mediator.

Prior to the execution, Kubrick adds an incident, not found in the novel, which briefly raises some expectation that the men may yet be saved: the officers are holding a dress ball at the chateau, the dancers whirling about in elaborate circles, again reiterating the visual motif of the opening scene. Dax enters and tries to persuade Broulard to stop the execution; when he refuses, claiming that the example will be good for the troops’ morale, Dax informs him that he has depositions to prove that Mireau ordered the artillery commander to fire on his own soldiers. A close-up of the shocked expression on Broulard’s face as he considers the implications of this action, and Dax’s efforts to hammer home the potential embarrassment to the command creates some momentary doubt as to the fate of the scapegoat soldiers. Kubrick, however, then cuts, ironically, to the execution scene, which becomes all the more devastating in the shock of this last-minute failure to place the blame on the true “villain’’ of the piece. Despite his defensive maneuver, Dax has failed, and so the pawns must be sacrificed to the military hierarchy’s need to cover the tracks of its own tactical incompetence.

The execution scene displays the same dramatic geometric patterning which has earlier emphasized the men’s powerless status in the dual game of war and military politics; in addition, an incessant drumbeat supplies a measured echo of the ceremonial significance of their doom. Throughout the execution sequence, the chateau looms in the background, its grandeur menacing and yet mocking the spectacle taking place in front of it. Between the stiff ranks of troops assembled to witness the execution, Paris marches to his death with military dignity, while Férol, sobbing and clutching at the priest, and Arnaud, unconscious on a stretcher, seem all too human in their lack of military discipline. The camera then tracks relentlessly toward the three stakes; the men are tied, blessed by the priest, and shot.

As mentioned earlier, Kubrick spares his audience the pain of ending on such a note, first, by introducing an element of partial justice (at this point in his career, he lacks Cobb’s all-consuming pessimism) and, lastly, by picturing the soldiers in a moment of emotional unity. After the execution, Mireau is called before Broulard and disgraced for his vengeful attempt to fire on the men. (There is an echo of an earlier scene in which Dax has punished the selfish malice of Lt. Roget by placing him in charge of the firing squad, thus forcing him to take immediate, physical responsibility for the killing of Paris, whom he framed; in that scene, again, the light in Dax’s dugout was focused accusingly on the face of the culprit.) Finally, while the soldiers are seen in the tavern, whistling and frightening the girl, Kubrick cuts to Dax’s face (he is listening outside the door), which registers disgust at this further spectacle of human cruelty. But then, the men calm down and the girl’s song moves them to tears, as they sing with her; again Kubrick cuts to Dax, whose face now reflects some acceptance, some recognition that there is something humane and noble in man, something worth saving. The film concludes upon Dax’s being informed that the men have been ordered back to the front.

Paths of Glory is a virtually flawless film—every frame is effective, every sequence necessary. Also, it is marvellously acted, as Kirk Douglas gives one of the finest performances of his career (he would give another for Kubrick in 1960 in Spartacus), and the supporting cast is excellent, especially Adolphe Menjou (who manages to steal the film with his suave and sinister complacency). Kubrick’s dramatic exploitation of setting, visual imagery, lighting, and music, finally, give the film an exciting emotional and symbolic intensity that highlight the story’s grotesque significance.

Despite his modification of Cobb’s ending, Kubrick yet preserves and projects Cobb’s thematic focus on the impassable gap between officer and soldier, and the abject vulnerability of the soldier’s lot. Paths of Glory is, indeed, a clear example of how a great film artist can form and shape his literary original even while delicately transforming it for his own purposes. In his next military film, Kubrick’s personal vision would come even closer to Cobb s: in Dr. Strangelove, no one is spared as he concludes his damning study of the military structure with a nuclear holocaust, in which everyone and everything is finally destroyed.


1 In this context it is interesting to note that Kubrick has often relied on the works of distinguished authors as the bases of his films, having adapted for the screen Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon.

2 Only Norman Kagen in The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (1972; rpt. New York: Grove Press, 1975) mentions Cobb and then only briefly.

3 The above biographical information can be found in The Book-of-the-Month Club’s Newsletter on Paths of Glory, June 1935.

4 Stanley Cooperman, World War I and the American Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1967), p. 61.

5 Ibid., p. 62.

6 Ibid., p. 63.

7 This appears in Cobb’s own note at the end of the novel.

8 Warren Eyster, “Afterword” to the reprint of Paths of Glory (New York: Avon, 1973), p. 218. This essay also appears in David Madden, ed., Rediscoveries (New York: Crown Publishers, 1971), pp. 135-46.

9 Paths of Glory was in Faulkner’s library. See Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 903, 1500.

10 New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1935, p. 1.

11“Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory (1935; rpt. New York: Avon, 1973), pp. 104-5. All further references to the novel are cited in the text and refer to this edition.

12 Eyster, p. 220.

SOURCE: Gabriel Miller, Screening the Novel. Rediscovered American Fiction in Film, 1980


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