Military Madness: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory (1957) – Blu-ray review
Kubrick’s first masterwork and in many ways never bettered, given that its meticulous deconstruction of institutional sadism is heightened with real anger.
Paths Of Glory
(Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
War was the subject to which Stanley Kubrick returned again and again, from his debut Fear And Desire through to his penultimate film Full Metal Jacket. It’s an obvious subject for any filmmaker given its heightened dramatic stakes but Kubrick offered a consistent, piercing insight into how war brought out the worst in mankind twice over: first, by providing hellish conditions that tend towards barbarity; and second, by offering an infrastructure whereby this condition could be actively engineered.
He directed no finer film on the subject than Paths Of Glory, whose minute focus on one botched WWI assault (and its terrible aftermath) gives it a resonant statement about all warfare. In Fear And Desire, Kubrick attempted abstraction with the idea that its story could be “any war,” but his was a directorial mind that needed specifics and here he has them.
Tahe premise has the gleaming perfection of a slaughterhouse; all it needs are men willing to switch on the machines. Kubrick exposes the way in which hierarchy protects those at the top from harm, from a general flattered into staging an impossible mission in the hope of a medal, to a lieutenant frantically covering up an accidental killing. When the mission goes awry, it’s a matter of saving face … by blaming those underneath.
The result neatly exposes the insanity of war (“One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then”) but this has pertinent things to say about any organisation; somewhere in the plot of Paths Of Glory there might be a great thriller about the corporate world. For all of Kirk Douglas’ lawyer’s appeals to common sense and humanity, the military system tends towards psychopathy and madness – a key Kubrick theme.
He’d perfect that theme and in doing so, arguably, become more mannered. But even the trademark camerawork – the extraordinary tracking shots along the trenches or across no man’s land – here have a fierce purpose. There’s no hiding behind irony or the veneer of elaborate art direction. A young man’s film, this is incandescent with rage at the world it depicts. The humour is offered without laughter and even the eventual comeuppance of the vile General Mireau lacks any triumphalism because it’s yet another example of the system asserting itself.
It ends with one of the few moments of emotion in Kubrick, as the bloodlust of the soldiers is
momentarily silenced by the delicate singing of a German prisoner. If it wasn’t obvious enough from the scene, consider that the actress would soon become Mrs Kubrick; something touched Kubrick here that he would rarely reveal.