Gen. Broulard: There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.
Col. Dax: I never thought of that, sir.
Gen. Broulard: You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline.
Col. Dax: I see.
Gen. Broulard: And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.
Of the many appalling scenes in Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war classic, that is perhaps the most appalling. Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, has just had three of his men convicted during a court martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Their crime? Failure to obtain an unobtainable objective.
Set in France in 1916, after the First World War had bogged down into a trench-based stalemate, soldiers are reduced to cannon fodder shredded in pursuit of minor goals. For Dax’s men it’s The Anthill, a raised portion of ground a few hundred meters out in No Man’s Land. General Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, orders The Anthill taken, even though from the outset it seems impossible. The task falls to Dax’s men. After the first wave goes over the top, the advance stalls when the second wave won’t leave the French trench. Dax’s immediate subordinate even goes so far as to order his artillery to blast his own men out of the trench (the artillery commander, with a rigorous knowledge of procedural regulations, won’t do so without the proper paperwork). The assault, of course, fails.
Failure isn’t an acceptable outcome for Broulard, so he orders 100 of Dax’s men charged with cowardice – the penalty for conviction is death. Broulard eventually settles for three scapegoats, one from each company, supposedly selected at random (trench politics dictate otherwise). It falls to Dax to defend his men in a hastily arranged kangaroo court held in an opulent countryside estate. Of course he loses. Of course his men are executed.
In the scene above, Dax confronts Broulard with the information about the artillery orders, in a last minute plea of leniency. A party is going on in the background. Broulard, as you can see, is unmoved. Besides, he has guests to whom he must attend. Paths of Glory is maybe best thought of as an upstairs/downstairs commentary on warfare, one keenly aware of the division between the grunts and their leaders.
French director Francois Truffant said that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film, because any movie makes warfare look exciting. Perhaps, but Paths of Glory gets awfully close. There is only one battle scene in the film, and it is anything but glorious. No enemies are slain, at least that we can see. No objective is achieved. The hellscape that was No Man’s Land is evident as Dax crawls across the muddy landscape, pock marked with rain-filled shell craters, avoiding the entanglement of barbed wire and fallen comrades. Instead, Paths of Glory focus on the petty machinations of men at war, on both the highest and lowest levels.
In spite of all that comes before, Paths of Glory ends on an oddly hopeful note. Dax, after a last meeting with Broulard, finds many of his men in a tavern in town, presented with “entertainment” in the form of a frightened German girl (played by the future Mrs. Kubrick) who will sing for them:
It’s a final moment of humanity, and hope, in the middle of such horror (Dax’s men, we learn, are headed back to the front).
Paths of Glory is an odd film to watch in 2011. It takes place entirely in France. With the notable exception of the German girl in the end, all the characters are French. Yet, there’s nary a bit of francais, or even an attempted French accent, anywhere in the film. Dax and his men sound like they wandered off the set of a typical Western. Nobody would try to make a movie like that today, but it plays into Kubrick’s long history of skewed reality as a means of getting at a broader points. Think of Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick’s Vietnam really ain’t the real Vietnam) or Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick’s New York City is far from the real NYC). The result is oddly universal, rather than being tied to a particular place and time.
For Kubrick fans, I did a series on my old blog, called “Mondays With Stanley,” where I worked through his biggest films (i.e., the ones I own). You can find all the links here.
Paths of Glory
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
From the novel by Humphrey Cobb