To the victors go the history books. The generals know this. This is the knowledge that motivates atrocities. For the losers in war there is only the truth of humiliation, shame, futility. For the winners, there is the power to never face the truth at all. War for generals is a gamble of abominations with the payoff being the freedom to mask slaughter as heroism and transmute stupidity into tragedy. In battles replayed endlessly on library shelves and cinema screens there are only Audie Murphys and Jean Moulins.
Standing against the wall of selective memory, any contrary impulse becomes a kind of obscene graffiti. Case in point: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. The film is based on an actual case of soldiers sentenced to death for “cowardice” by French military tribunals during World War I. Paths of Glory in France for also two decades after its release in 1957. The French government was not prepared to allow its citizens to see a collective portrait of the evil responsible for such “great” battles as Verdun, where 500,000 soldiers would die and 800,000 be mutilated for the sake of twelve square miles of mud.
With one exception, the officers in Kubrick’s film are vile. They should be caricatures, but they are not. Their minds inhabited only by murderous platitudes, they inspire nothing less than fear and loathing.
Exhibit A: the commanding officer played by George Macready. “Hello there, soldier! Ready to kill more Germans?” is his idea of morale boosting. The man allows no legitimate sources for fear except cowardice. There’s no such thing as shell shock in his army. Suicidal missions? The only proof of their impossibility should be the dead bodies of his men. It’s Catch-22 in another war: To avoid the charge of cowardice you must prove the mission was impossible; to prove the mission was impossible you must die.
Exhibit B: the general played by Adolphe Menjou. Epauletted sleaze. A Versailles—like palace is a fitting place for French General Headquarters., where low-ranked officials’ hypocrisy is refined into an invincible, aristocratic upper-rank cynicism. Justice is trashed in favour of expediency: “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging than to watch someone else die. Troops crave discipline, and one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man every now and then.” According to the generals, the soldiers who charge into barbed wire and walls of machine gun fire “die wonderfully…in good taste.”
Confronted by the lone sympathetic officer in the film, Col. Dax (played by Kirk Douglas), Menjou’s General Broulanrd shrugs off the accusation that he’s a degenerate, sadistic old man with the curt reply: “You’re an idealist and I pity you like I would the village idiot.”
Exhibits C & D are left for your inspection. As is the unusual closing scene of Paths of Glory. Kubrick’s cinematographic counterpoint to the drama is perfect. He uses a documentary-style camera that tracks through the trenches, crawls across the blasted wastes of no-man’s land, and drifts through the gilded corridors of H.Q., the heart of the killing machine.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Paths of Glory remains one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. The sense of revulsion it generates at the venality, viciousness, callousness, and sheer brute stupidity of some of the men who orchestrated the slaughter in World War I is almost physical. The movie is relentless, yet never strident. Kubrick’s camera rolls incessantly, in deep focus, through the imperial halls and gardens of the Scheissheim Palace outside Munich, the endless frontline trenches, and the cratered hellscape of No Man’s Land. Horror is peeled back layer upon layer, honour and justice are eviscerated. When soldiers retreat in the face of firepower that cuts them to pieces before they’re halfway to their impossible objective, the generals in command dismiss them as cowards and scum. Three men are sent before a firing squad because “it’s good for morale to shoot a man now and then,” There’s a sad irony in the fact that France—which in the songs of Jacques Prévert, Georges Brassens, and Boris Vian produced some of the bitterest condemnations of war ever penned—banned Paths of Glory until 1975.
This was the film of which Kirk Douglas was most proud. He was instrumental in financing it. The Criterion edition of Paths of Glory includes a half-hour television interview with Douglas, at his most charming. The Criterion package also contains a superb essay on the film, “We Have Met the Enemy…” by film historian James Naremore. The other required reading is Rogert Ebert’s review of Paths of Glory, originally published in The Great Movies III and now available at rogerebert.com.