An Examination of Egos: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957)

A stylized shot from Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory", as Kirk Douglas and a general argue.

Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre has often been labeled ‘cerebral’, wherein emotion remains not the primary objective. Feelings are there, of course, but to witness them one must remain patient because quite simply, unlike a lesser director, Kubrick is not going to instruct you on how you should feel. Rather, his films have been compared to a game of chess—intricate, meticulous, and deliberate, where the moves unfold the narrative slowly, as one scene leads into the next. Paths of Glory is the fourth film within Kubrick’s corpus, having directed The Killing only one year prior. As noted in my review of The Killing, this earlier film contains no fat and it succeeds because of the sharp narrative intricacy—one scene into the next, like a deliberate game of chess—all this, in addition to Sterling Hayden’s performance. Now, we’ve got Kirk Douglas who, within his first shot, made sure to have his shirt off. (Apparently, shirtlessness was a requirement in his film contract.)

Paths of Glory is set during World War I, in 1916, in a place where the Germans and French have been fighting, with both sides yielding bloodshed. However this is a film about egos, where one’s rank is all that matters, and intelligence, ideas, and inventiveness matter only insomuch as one’s hierarchy. (How often have you, reader, experienced something similar at a toxic workplace?) The area that centers on the battle is the Anthill, for which the men are ordered to attack, only with one problem—to do so is pretty much a suicide mission. Yet in the Generals’ minds, only the dead are brave. To be alive is akin to cowardice. ‘If they were brave, they would be at the bottom of the trenches,’ they claim. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax who is opposed to the mission, but he begrudgingly follows orders, as he keeps his anger in check. And so what is in it for them? Well, a promotion. To summarize:

Commanding officer General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his subordinate, General Mireau (George Macready), to attack a German trench position, offering a promotion as an incentive. Though the mission is foolhardy to the point of suicide, Mireau commands his own subordinate, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), to plan the attack. When it ends in disaster, General Mireau demands the court-martial of three random soldiers in order to save face.

The film, which shares the same set as the mansion from Last Year of Marienbad, is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb and was banned in France until the mid-1970s for its depiction of the cruel French army. Accordingly, the novel ends with the men’s execution, but Paths of Glory takes us further. Specifically, I am referring to the final scene that Roger Ebert claims isn’t organic to the film, and while I don’t necessarily agree, I do agree when Ebert notes in his review, “Songs at the ends of dramas usually make us feel better. They are part of closure. This song at the end of this movie makes us feel more forlorn. It is not a release, but a twist of Kubrick’s emotional knife.”

The song to which Ebert is referring is the one a young woman nervously sings called “The Faithful Hussar,” before the drunken men, who slowly shed tears as they hum along. The woman, named Susanne Christiane, became Stanley Kubrick’s wife afterwards. But even before this scene, we first must watch the men who are shot—witnessing them suffering, turning to God at the last moment, falling to their feet and crying, and even killing a cockroach in rebellion. One man is ill and still is forced to undergo his execution. ‘We need him to be awake,’ they say. Another clings to a rosary, weeping.

The Generals regard the soldiers as nothing more than mindless children in need of discipline, and what better way than to discipline by shooting a man every now and again? (The Generals also conveniently deny that there is any such thing as shell shock.) Then, when all is done, they claim that the men ‘died well,’ (which really means that the Generals got their way). These three soldiers were shot on account of their ‘cowardice’, you see, and yet who is sitting safely behind the table, ordering others, in some hope for a promotion? Who are the real cowards, in other words?

It is not uncommon to think of death alongside that of pain—we are reminded that the two go together, and as for which causes the greater trepidation? Both will yield something unpleasant and unknown. When the soldiers speak about how they do not wish to die, they are told that ‘many will also die before the war is over,’ as if this is supposed to offer some form of comfort. I will say, however, that when death is near, those who feel its proximity will view it differently. To contrast, the Generals who are enjoying the luxury of their tea at the table don’t even think about it as anything more than a tool with which they can assert their control.

Paths of Glory carries the early hallmarks of a great Kubrick film: the long, winding shots of the men in the trenches (a technique that would later be applied in the garden within The Shining), the courtroom setting which evokes an atmosphere of the final room in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of course the War Room drama that unfolds as humor in his 1963 film Dr. Strangelove. As Kubrick’s first great film, Paths of Glory is not merely about the battle of two countries—that is France and Germany, but more so a battle of multiple egos, where one’s level of evil seems to correspond to his level of power. After all, where would one be without the ability to crush someone far beneath?

In the final scene, as the young German woman sings, the men are soothed as they listen. This song will be perhaps the last peaceful moment for many, where afterwards they will find themselves on the front line once again. There is no happy ending, but here is a brief respite. Colonel Dax realizes that the men need their time, so he requests that they have just a few moments more. Any lesser director would have ensured that evil got its just due in the end. Instead, we witness the two Generals turn against one another in their competition for rank and power. Abusing their men for their gain, soldiers are nothing more than playthings, and often what one perceives as right or wrong is only a convenient look away. Where goes the glory, then?

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More from Jessica Schneider: Heist Gone Wrong (& Right): On Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956), Celebration of Failure: Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” (1953) & “Killer’s Kiss” (1955)12 Decisions, 1 Life: On Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)