When a director of the stature of Stanley Kubrick dies unexpectedly, we are all forced to recognise how much the cinema owes to him. He worked through a time when it was still possible, if difficult, for the best men and women in Hollywood to make serious, intelligent films, and when that era virtually ceased, he had enough clout to buck the trend and still make his films without interference.
One of his early films was Paths Of Glory, a classic about individuals at war that is more than the equal of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It is nothing like as well known as A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Shining, but it is arguably one of his finest films. This may have been because he made it in 1957 when what he wanted to say emotionally was less clouded by his later, colder fascination with the logistics of film-making.
The story has a classic simplicity that renders its argument as powerful now as it was then. Set during the first world war, it has a French general given impossible orders by his superiors to capture a well-defended enemy fortification. He passes them on to a subordinate, who passes the buck again. Each knows the impossibility of the mission and, when it fails, the third officer (Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas) is the logical choice to take responsibility. His superiors, however, refuse to let him.
Three representatives of the men, chosen by each company commander, must do so, and Colonel Dax nobly if guiltily takes on the hopeless task of defending them from a charge of cowardice. The paths of glory do indeed lead but to the grave.
Kubrick’s film is an angry one – he was basically an old-fashioned Jewish liberal brought up in the Bronx. But Paths Of Glory is as much concerned to tell us about human behaviour as to appear a piece of anti-establishment propaganda. The general, superbly played by Adolphe Menjou, shows no emotion in insisting that the men, rather than the officers, take the blame. He does what he is supposed to do according to his station in life.
In a way, Colonel Dax is the weaker man, betrayed by his emotions but unable to contemplate what Spartacus (also played by Douglas in the later film) did and engineer a revolt. Nor are the men much better. They too lack the strength of will to contest their lot and a leader to help them.
Humphrey Cobb’s book, from which the story is culled, is more simplistic than this – it tells you what to think. Kubrick’s film knows what you may think, but never anticipates it. It divides the world into two different places. The mud-grey world of the trenches is one, the rococo chateau where the officers live is another.
‘There is no such thing as shell-shock,’ says the general, inspecting his troops and coming across a trembling man. ‘Get him out of here. I won’t have brave men contaminated.’ Kubrick was aided by black and white photography from Georg Krause that was brilliantly modelled on the work of frontline photographers of the time, and by a subtle sound-track. There is, for instance, a deafening silence before the unfortunate soldiers are shot in the early morning light and the shots themselves seem to wake the birds. What we have here is a masterly sense of atmosphere that tells us everything, and more, of what Kubrick wants us to know.
Though largely populated by American actors, this is a film that seems more European than most European movies. It isn’t too far-fetched to say that Dr Strangelove, which later mined the same general theme and turned it into farce, was a logical extension of Paths Of Glory.
In almost every film he made, it was the frailties of human beings faced with an often ridiculous and dangerously exploitative system that were Kubrick’s main concern. Paths Of Glory is possibly his most emotional film, and that’s why I think it remains one of his very best.