Having grown up in the Vietnam era I knew many an ex-GI who would tell tales of fragging a bad C.O. Many older people, especially of the World War II generation, could never understand what would drive soldiers to loathe their superiors to the point of murder. Well, the answer is laid out in Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths Of Glory, like in no other. In fact, the film could well have been subtitled A Defense Of Fragging, if only the term had been coined.
Yet, the film not only anticipated things to come, in the field of war, but showed its endebtedness to the past because, of the many images and tropes culled, through the centuries, from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, perhaps none has resulted in a better and more perfectly realized work of art than Paths Of Glory, a film often wrongly and simplistically called an anti-war film (it is, but is also one of the 3 or 4 best WAR films ever made), and culled from these lines by Gray:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The film was the first ‘masterpiece’ film from Kubrick, and, unlike his earlier films, every scene hums with that Kubrickian flair. Based upon a novel by Humphrey Cobb, the film’s screenplay is seamless, and allows for prototypical Hollywood ‘leading man’ moments by star Kirk Douglas, scene-stealing antics by lesser lights, like Adolphe Menjou (‘These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division….One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.’) and Tim Carey, sad and funny moments (see the dead roach scene in the prison), swift exposition, as well as poignancy and depth, great ‘battle scenes’ and even better ‘courtroom drama’ scenes. It allows for petulance and hubris, as well as moral outrage. The screenplay, loosely based upon a real life World War One French military case, is so sublime that it makes one wonder where anyone ever got the idea that Kubrick was a ‘cold, calculating’ director? This film. Along with many others of his, should have had the critics crying that he was a ‘bleeding heart,’ or worse.
The narrative opens upon General George Broulard (Menjou) who orders his psychotic underling, General Paul Mireau (George Macready, in a scene-stealing performance), to capture a German redoubt called The Anthill. Mireau sanely claims it’s folly, and he will suffer high mortality rates, but when Broulard dangles promotion and public acclaim to him, Mireau takes the bait, or, in modern parlance, drinks the Kool-Aid.
We then get the first great Kubrick tracking shot of his career, Mireau strutting through the trenches, slapping shell-shocked soldiers like his real world American counterpart, George Patton would decades later, and offering pathetic homilies and bon mots. This scene is reconstructed and deconstructed not too much later when the film’s hero, Colonel Dax (Douglas) also walks the trenches, but as a prelude to mass slaughter, not dickwaving. Mireau arrives at Dax’s headquarters, and tells Dax, a criminal defense attorney in civilian life, the planned assault. Dax, who we learn in the film’s DVD commentary has his obligatory shirtless scene due to contractual obligations Douglas made, tells his superior of the unlikelihood of success in taking the Anthill. After some cajoling and bullying from Mireau, and a threat to remove him from command, Dax accepts his task and joins in the folly, at least nominally. But not before a parting shot at his superior, by paraphrasing Dr. Johnson’s claim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, when Mireau’s appeal to that, after the appeal to vanity has failed.
A scouting mission is formed, headed by a cowardly drunkard, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), whose idiocy results in the death of an underling, after the man he sends out as a scout is taken to be the enemy and Roget kills him with a grenade. The third man, Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker, playing well against type – he was Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly- as did many of the actors in the film) blames Roget for the death, and threatens to report him for his idiocy and drinking. Roget, though, threatens Paris into silence, expressing remorse over the accidental death. But, he still sees Paris as a threat to him.