Ranking: #19/111

Director: Stanley Kubrick (USA)

Genre: War Drama

This is an anti-war masterpiece which ruthlessly exposes the gulf between the grandiose power and opulence of military elites running World War 1 and the horrors of trench warfare faced by the soldiers. In between these two classes stands the formidable figure of Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers who’ve been commanded to go on a suicidal mission to storm a heavily fortified Ant Hill. Dax sees first-hand how his army’s generals, protected from the frontline, make decisions based on their own glory and political self-interest. At the same time, he knows the real, hellish conditions under which his soldiers are living and fighting.

The grandiose interiors in the chateau of officers show how elitist they have become. The director contrasts these interior scenes with the muddy, bloody mess of the trenches. Whether it is a scene filmed outside or inside, no one in cinema places a camera in better positions, vis-à-vis the subject material being filmed, than Stanley Kubrick.

The moral dilemma for Dax, played with a laser-sharp intensity by Kirk Douglas in his finest role, is whether to obey a command from his superior officer which he knows is an impossible mission for his men. He knows how the system of military commands works and he knows it is a corrupt system. Generals make life-and-death decisions in a political game in which the lives of soldiers are expendable.

Kubrick gives a brilliant depiction of real combat and, at the same time, exposes the corrupt decision-making systems that lead to war in the first place. His dynamic, mobile camera is not just the human eye of the audience witnessing warfare from up close; it is also the eye of the conscience. It is an active camera that moves through the trenches so nothing is hidden from view. Close-ups and medium shots predominate to convey a feeling of being trapped in the trenches.

Despite his reservations about the futility of the assault on Ant Hill, Dax leads his men into battle, crossing into the dangerous no man’s land under heavy fire. The mobile camera, once again, tracks the action. The effects are very real, despite the director avoiding the usual gore and blown-up limbs which is standard fare in many war dramas. When B Company see the casualties resulting from the first wave of attack, they refuse to leave their trenches. The ambitious General, Paul Mireau, orders his artillery to fire at their own troops because, in his view, they aren’t advancing fast enough.

Afterwards, General Mireau orders a court martial for cowardice and Dax is commissioned to defend his troops and argue that they fell back because they were pinned down.

The film highlights the gap in understanding prevailing between high-ranking officers and the combat troops.

Mireau’s court martial is a farce. Firstly, three men are randomly chosen to go on trial to represent their company – the idea is that a severe sentence would act as a deterrent against any future acts of “cowardice”.  Secondly, there is no formal indictment. And, thirdly, evidence that might lead to an acquittal is not admitted. Dax, as the defense lawyer, condemns the proceedings. Nonetheless, the three men are found guilty and then shamelessly executed. Kubrick attacks war from a legal and moral perspective, exposing the systems that lead to its gross abuses of power.

The dialogue is charged with barely controlled intensity threatening to spill over at any time into rage. The mood is bleak and the soul-searching themes are profound. The acting is perfectly calibrated to convey the contrast between the military elites and the masses of troops they misuse in their power games during war time.

There is a glimmer of humanity left intact at the end of the film as Dax’s men relax at an inn following the grim scenes of the executions. A captive German woman begins to sign a folk song and suddenly, their inebriated and crude mockery of her is silenced by the beauty of her voice and the power of her song. For a brief moment, war is forgotten and a human connection is made, however fleetingly, across “enemy lines”.

In 1992, Paths of Glory was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.