Directed by Stanley Kubrick; Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
The dramatization of the politics of the chain of command and the never-ending cycle of bullshit it creates was perfected in David Simon’s The Wire, but it was born in Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s cutting indictment of the parlor games of military brass, their hypocrisy, and what’s lost beyond human lives.
Caught in the middle is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who’s tasked with taking a near-impregnable German stronghold during the dog days of the first world war, all so that a superior officer can become more superior by virtue of more ribbons and tin on his chest. When the inevitable happens, army command must set an example, choosing three men from the already massacred battalion to stand trial for cowardice and possibly face the firing squad. Dax, a leader of men you only get in the movies, defends them in court.
A couple years after this Douglas reunites with Kubrick on Spartacus, and his roles as Dax and Spartacus feel like two sides of a coin; two versions of a man whose integrity forbids him to surrender to the pressures of a corrupt system. Paths of Glory, however, turns from the brighter tomorrow that Spartacus ultimately promises, and its barren no man’s land feels like a pathetic fallacy of the moral landscape of those who squabble over it. Yes, both strike out for justice and humanitarian victories, but here, nobody wins.
Douglas comes close to perfection as Dax. His angular face, steely eyes and indomitable chin dimple make for the embodiment of resolve, and Douglas sets fire to it all with a voice that rings out with clear authority only later to fray with desperation. Statuesque and imperial as he argues in the film’s courtroom scenes, it’s in the film’s battle centerpiece that those same features truly shine, with Dax tearing through blood, barbed wire and bullets as his men die around him. Returning to the trenches to rally troops, his body is driven by a sense of duty, but his face is turned inhuman by the frenzied fear roiling behind them. A golem molded from the cursed earth of the battlefield. If Douglas would not go on to become “Kirk Douglas”, Hollywood royalty, and simply remain solely an actor, his performance as Dax would be acting lore, and not just a touchstone in his obituary.
Kubrick’s already in firm control here of the wry humour and exploratory cinematic craftsmanship that will define his legacy, missing no opportunity to expose the powerful, like its somber opening narration of the war’s misery that leads into two generals rubbing hands in a palatial sitting room. He elicits every feeling with ease, from indignation to resigned hopelessness, and credit’s due to the rogues’ gallery of empowered deplorables played by George Macready, Richard Anderson and Wayne Morris. Vermin, all of them.
But it’s not just all talk, mouths moving and eyes narrowing, as Kubrick likes to draw attention to himself as well in all the best ways. Films like 1917 and Saving Private Ryan stand as modern standouts when it comes to war choreography, but the sequence of shots of Dax and his men trying to take the Anthill makes Mendes’ climactic long take of the early morning attack look like a slack pretender to the mastery on display here.
Believability is one thing, but Kubrick also elevates it to something truer to its essence. There’s a scene early on where three men sneak through no man’s land in the night, and it’s not particularly suspenseful even though danger lurks in every direction, just out of sight. It’s worse somehow, with Kubrick extinguishing the stars above leaving a pitch-black void bearing down on a fatally scarred earth that’s closer to a frozen hell than anything we have here on earth. Impossible to fathom, horrible to consider, and any man who sets foot on it is already forsaken.
In Paths of Glory, the lucky ones are the dead, but we should feel lucky to watch it. Rare is the film that mixes critique, craft and storytelling with such apparent ease, and an all-time great performance only adds to its might. The changing nature of war also won’t dilute the power of this film, as what’s immediate and vital about Paths of Glory is not its depiction of human wreckage, but of the real damage wrought when one party gets to hold weight over that of another and how rigid rules grind to dust humanity’s place in the proceedings.