Stanley Kubrick has something of a reputation for his criticisms of war. Across his entire body of work, the themes of war's dehumanization and its pointlessness recur. These included his very first feature film Fear and Desire, as well as his later dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, but nowhere is that more clear than the film that first established Kubrick as an auteur, Paths of Glory.
While Kubrick criticized war in many of his films, none were quite so direct nor so bleak as his simple but effective vision of World War I, which highlights the pointlessness and futility of war. In its own day, Paths of Glory sparked a huge controversy upon release. It was banned in France due to its negative treatment of the French military, and Germany to maintain positive relations with France. Even several decades after its initial release, Paths of Glory is often considered one of the most effective anti-war film.
It is fitting that Kubrick should explore such themes by choosing one of the most pointless conflicts to have ever occurred in human history. World War I was the unfortunate end of over a decade of political tensions and imperialist desires that only needed a final spark to be put into action. That came in the form of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which provoked a war with Syria and caused a chain reaction that led to half of Europe being engulfed in the conflict.
This was a war like no human being had ever seen, especially with the then-radical weapons it produced such as tanks. It also marked the first time air planes were used in combat. When it first broke out, there was an optimistic attitude among the public. Men were pressured to enlist or else be labelled as "cowards" by their peers. In 1914, they were promised a glorious battle that would end before Christmas. In reality those who were not killed within moments of their first exposure to combat would have to endure four harsh years living in the miserable conditions of their trenches while the generals remained safe behind the lines.
Many of these generals were not accostomed to this new kind of warfare. They had their roots in the very different world of the Victorian Era, and were attempting to adapt tactics that had become long obsolete. While they tried to plan for their own gain, men were fighting and dying on the front lines for small patches of land. The lucky ones were those who could live miserably in trenches. The less fortunate Canadians who fought at the Battle of Passchendale lacked even the cover of trenches, and had no choice but to fight in and risk drowning in deep mud.
To add insult to injury, there was also the Treaty of Versailles which ended the war. This "treaty" consisted of delegates from England, France, and Russia (all of whom were on the same side) meeting and deciding that someone had to be blamed for the war, and it was decided that Germany was responsible. This subsequently led to a series of decisions that would bankrupt the German economy, a factor that twenty years later would unwittingly contribute to setting the stage for World War II.
Paths of Glory is hardly subtle about its bleak view of the war. Right from the beginning there is an obvious divide between the generals who give the orders, and the men who carry them out. The opening scene sees two generals discussing a plan to take "The Anthill" (a heavily fortified German position). General Mireau (George Macready) initially claims to care about his soldiers, but as he speaks with General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) the two of them quickly become interested in taking the Anthill at all costs.
Mireau continues to maintain the illusion of concern by visiting the trench. When Mireau addresses the soldiers, he identifies several as "good" men before approaching one man who is irresponsive (Fred Bell). The man in question is suffering from a psychological condition that has long affected soldiers in combat. There are documented cases of this particular condition happening at least as early as the American Civil War, but it was not until World War I that it was given a name: "Shell shock." Today the same condition is understood as post-traumatic stress disorder. It often affects survivors of traumatic or life-threatening experiences, often but not always associated with returning soldiers.
Unfortunately, during World War I, such an understanding was not in place. Psychology was still in its earliest stages, dominated largely by Sigmund Freud's original concept of psychoanalysis (which, while not completely obsolete, is far more complicated than he realized). PTSD, or "shell-shock" as it was still known, was seen as nothing short of a sign of cowardice. This is brought up in the film when Mireau encounters one such case, denies that "shell shock" exists, and then orders a sergeant to have "this baby" transferred from the unit. He and another officer go on to discuss the potential danger of soldiers with PSTD "contaminating" the rest of the unit.
It is here that he meets Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) and briefs him on the mission. The two of them feign respect, but there is already a clear split. Mireau's bright and shiny uniform serves as a sharp contrast to the dirty fatigues worn by the soldiers in the trench. The earlier confrontations have already established that the respect these two men share is nothing more than an illusions. The General is merely interested in the possibility of a promotion, while Dax actually understands the reality of the war.
It is worth noting that little is shown of the Anthill. The viewer only catches a brief glimpse from a distance, during which only the basic structure is seen. The film refrains from showing a single enemy soldier. This seems like a curious choice, but it is also quite fitting. By showing so little of the Anthill, it becomes much harder to see why the Generals are so obsessed with it. This therefore puts the viewer in the shoes of the soldiers, who will soon be ordered to attack it without any real understanding of what will be accomplished by doing so.
Even Mireau barely seems to think much of the Anthill. He discusses it as little more than a property to be obtained. When briefing Dax, he goes on to casually recite percentages of how many soldiers he thinks will die as though he were merely calculating prices for real estate. It is obvious that he does not care as much about his soldiers as he would like them to think. He envisions them as being brave warriors, with one of his officers even claiming that his visits to the trench improve morale. The reality is exactly the opposite, the soldiers are human beings who are afraid of being killed in action. In 1916, after the high casualties of conflicts like Vimy Ridge and Passchendale, this would hardly an unjustified feeling.
There are two major sequences that depict No Man's Land, the barren wasteland that divides the two sides of World War I, both of which continue to highlight problems within the military. In the first of these two, a group of three soldiers embark on a reconnaissance mission. They are led by Lieutenant Roget, who makes no secret of the fact that he has been drinking. This mission is a disaster. Their efforts results in Roget throwing a grenade and accidentally killing one of his own men. When the other surviving soldier, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) calls Roget out on this, the latter pulls rank in order to press the former into keeping quiet, and he even goes as far as to falsify a report to deny any mistakes.
Roget may be a man on the battlefield, but he is still an officer, and already he is foreshadowing the very same attitudes the viewer will soon come to recognize in the generals. Roget has no concern for the war, he is merely looking out for himself. Instead of taking responsibility for the accidental death of a fellow scout, he opts to cover up any trace that the incident happened at all. Roget is merely trying to protect his own image by falsifying his report and denying his incompetence, much as Mireau will do on a larger scale later in the film. In other words, he is a coward.
The second of these two sequences is the actual battle. This particular sequence was very daring for its time, and was likely an inspiration for many later iconic battle sequences such as the famous Omaha Beach sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan. The sequence begins with Dax marching through the trenches before he climbs a ladder and blows a whistle, a signal for the soldiers to move. Unfortunately, the battle quickly descends into total chaos. The focus is purely on Dax, making it hard to tell precisely what is going on in the overall battle.
Even Dax himself quickly gets lost. When he finds himself back in the trenches, he makes a desperate attempt to lead the soldiers out, but this proves impossible due to the enemy's heavy fire. Dax is doing as he is instructed, giving his best effort, and still General Mireau is furious. Mireau becomes increasingly desperate. From the safety of his bunker, Mireau watches the battle and complains that several of his men are still in the trenches (because the enemy's guns are making it impossible to leave). The general is desperate to avoid failure, he even goes as far as to order artillery Captain Rousseau (John Stein) to fire on his soldiers in an effort to force them out of the trenches. When Rousseau refuses, Mireau threatens him with execution by firing squad.
He then demands that 100 soldiers be court-martialed for "cowardice in the face of the enemy." Ironically, this reluctance to admit to his mistake confirms that Mireau himself is indeed a coward who do anything to protect his reputation. At this point, the trenches are left behind and the rest of the film becomes about the court-martial. Generals Mireau and Broulard casually discuss the situation over dinner with Dax present. Both generals seem to maintain that "cowardice" was shown by the soldiers and that someone has got to pay the price. Broulard has no concern about the fact that someone is to face execution so much as he is about making sure that they execute just the right amount of people to have their intended effect. The two generals show a complete lack of understanding of what has actually been happening on the battlefield with their desire to "maintain discipline."
It is also obvious that the court martial is rigged. The outcome is clearly decided in advance. It was only a formality that Dax was even permitted to make an attempt to defend the three soldiers who are finally selected as the accused. None of these men have done anything to warrant execution by firing squad. It is implied that Paris was selected by Roget to prevent him from testifying about the latter's actions during the scouting mission. Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lottery, and any effort to point out he has been commended twice for bravery is ignored by the court. The last man, Ferol (Timothy Carey), is only chosen by his commanding officer because he is a "social undesirable."
When the "trial" begins, it becomes clear that the prosecution is ready to do anything to find the defendants guilty. The three men relate their experiences in the taking of the Anthill, all of which are distorted to make them sound like cowards. Dax is quick to question each of them and note that this was not in fact the case. Of the three men, one only turned back because he was alone and had no chance of taking the Anthill, one only managed to get part of the way out of the trench before he was forced back in, and one was knocked unconscious after another soldier was shot and fell on top of him.
All of these accounts are dismissed by the judge (Peter Capell) with Dax as the only one who is able to call them out on the pointlessness of this trial. It is obvious that this is a hopeless case, and that the officers overseeing it are merely acting under Mireau's orders. Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird had a better chance of convincing the jury than Dax has with all his years of legal experience. The men are subsequently sentenced to firing squad, a sentence that remains even after one of them is injured and fractures their skull.
There is a small grain of hope that emerges once Dax learns that Mireau ordered the artillery to fire on his soldiers. This was a detail that Mireau had largely aimed to suppress, even dismissing Rousseau's earlier attempt to testify and covering it up as a "shell shortage." Dax is able to get statements and brings them to General Broulard, hoping that exposing Mireau will free his men. Unfortunately, the desired last-minute reprieve fails to arrive. This small glimmer of hope fails to prevent the execution, and instead becomes a final means of exposing the generals as hypocritical cowards.
Broulard had the ability to stop the execution. He had the proof that Mireau had ordered his artillery to fire on his own soldiers, and could have saved the lives of the three soldiers, but does not take it. Instead, Dax finds Mireau and Broulard eating a large dinner and talking about how well the execution went. Mireau boasts that the men "died well" to Dax's irritation. It is only now that Broulard decides to use Dax's information against Mireau, but his only concern is the one specific action. Broulard shows little concern for the people who have just been killed.
It is in this conversation that the hypocrisy of the generals is finally exposed. Mireau accuses Broulard of betraying him, declaring himself "the only innocent man in this entire affair," as well as trying to deny his actions on the battlefield, this coming from the man who is let three innocent people die to preserve his reputation. Broulard is hardly better, missing the point of what Dax has been trying to do by cheerfully offering to let him replace Mireau. It then becomes clear that Broulard sees Dax no differently than Mireau; a wealthy officer looking to advance his status. Dax finally takes this moment to call out Broulard, who goes on to ask what he has done wrong.
This final question quickly catches the attention of both Dax and the audience. Broulard acts as though nothing has happened. This man could have easily saved the lives of three innocent men, and apparently never even considered it. This insane obliviousness is pointed out by Dax upon hearing the general ask what he did wrong: "If you don't know the answer to that question, than I pity you." Everything that has happened has been pointless. Nothing of any value has been accomplished by anyone, just as the entirety of World War I itself, and war in general, often proves to be nothing more than people forced to kill each other for nothing.
This in turn leads to the movie's final scene, which presents the closest thing the viewer will see to an enemy soldier. During these famous last moments, a group of soldiers are gathered in a small tavern where a performer brings out a German (Christiane Harlan, Kubrick's future wife), for them to see. She is not a soldier of any kind, merely a frightened civilian caught up in the war against her will. It is obvious that she does not want to be here, yet the men express great joy and excitement upon seeing her. She is pressed into singing, and performs a song in German. This is not a glamorous performance. She is obviously scared as she sings, and performs alone, with no musical accompaniment.
Instead, music is created by the humming of the soldiers as they listen to her performance. One by one, their tone changes, and some of them begin crying. This brief but memorable sequence shows definitively that the nation that has been labelled the enemy is made up of human beings, no different from any of the soldiers present, who are all regular people stuck in a war they do not understand. This final scene shows just how pointless the whole war is, even giving the men present a moment of self-realization as they come to recognize themselves as not being much different from the frightened young woman in front of them.
There is a reason Paths of Glory has gained such a reputation as an anti-war film. It is a movie whose messages of the futility of war still hold up effectively today. World War I may be over, but these same messages are still relevant to the numerous other conflicts that have continued over the years. In the end, war is pointless. It involves innocent people being forced to kill each other for reasons they do not understand, and in the end nothing is accomplished.