Carter B. Horsley
is the failure to perform one's duties and "Paths of Glory"
is a classic anti-war movie set in World War I that examines this
theme simply, but very strongly.
French generals order and attack on the "ant-hill,"
a very well protected German fortifications during the battle
over done even though the generals admit that the attacks casualties
may reach 60 percent.
The attack begins and quickly fails as the French troops are mowed
down by machine-gunfire and intense artillery barrages and one
company does not even get out of its trenches, which infuriates
one of the generals who proceeds to order his own artillery to
shell the company's own trenches. The artillery officer, however,
refuses to obey, insisting on written orders to that effect and
general Mireau, played by George Macready, threatens him with
execution the next day.
At the meeting at headquarters after the French have retreated
back to their trenches and forsaken the doomed attack, the general,
who is still infuriated at the cowardice of the company that did
not move out of its trenches and the failure of the other companies
to secure the "anthill," demands the court-martial be
held immediately and that soldiers be executed for cowardice as
His superior general, Gneral
George Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, suggests that a dozen
soldiers should be so tried, but Colonel Dax, played by for Douglas,
who led the attack, sarcastically suggests that the whole company
be tried, or better yet, just him as the commander. General Broulard
interrupts him to remind him that court-martials should not involve
officers and General Mireau settles the discussion by magnanimously
insisting that only one man from each of the three companies involved
in the attack should be selected for court-martial. Colonel Dax
tells his company commanders to select those to be tried and,
as a former lawyer, he volunteers to defend them.
The court-martial, however, is a mockery of justice and the men
are found guilty despite their obvious individual heroics, and
they are sentenced to be executed the next day. Colonel Dax confronts
General Broulard with some statements that General Mireau had
ordered his artillery to fire on his own troops, but General Broulard
exits the room without indicating what action he might take.
The next morning the soldiers are executed in a memorable scene
full of circumstance, if not, pomp.
Afterwards, General Mireau thanks General Broulard for attending
the execution, which he himself had not gone to. General Broulard
notes that the executed soldiers "died wonderfully."
General Mireau appears relaxed, but his composure is shaken when
the superior informs him of Colonel Dax's charges about his ordering
the artillery to bombard his own troops. "There'll have to
be an inquiry," General Broulard states, matter-of-factly.
General Mireau storms out of the room and General Broulard congratulates
Colonel Dax and says he will succeed the general. Colonel Dax
explodes in anger and General Broulard expresses surprise, suggesting
that Colonel Dax had maneuvered and expected such a reward.
Kirk Douglas is excellent as Colonel Dax: disciplined, restrained,
intelligent, impassioned, and, in his final confrontation with
General Broulard, explosively outraged. Unfortunately his field
uniform is very unattractive, especially with the helmet tied
tightly around his face, a surprisingly unattractive costume,
especially in contrast with the quality and dazzle of his generals'
George Macready and Adolphe Menjou, however, run away with the
acting honors in this film and both are Oscar-worthy performances,
though incredibly the film received no Oscar nominations. The
movie was banned for 20 years in France, presumably because of
its harsh depiction of the French generals.
Macready, who was best known as the villain in "Gilda,"
the great film noir that also starred Rita Hayworth and
Glenn Ford, sports a very realistic and large scar on his right
cheek, and his posture is painfully rigid. His portrayal of General
Mireau as an imperious, ambitious and vengeful general is fantastic.
When first asked by General Broulard to make the attack, General
Mireaul explains that is unreasonable and not something in which
he believed, establishing his character as a realistic leader,
supportive of his responsibilities to the men under him.
General Broulard, however, stresses the importance of the attack
and how well it would help General Mireau in his promising career.
General Mireau is sophisticated enough to realize that his career
advancement is at stake and with considerable subtlety replies
with tense but mounting enthusiasm that he will make the attack.
The scene, relatively brief, is the "turning point,"
as the audience and General Mireau realize that if he turns down
the order, his career will be over and that someone else will
make the attack. These "opportunities" come rarely in
life and usually require split-second decisions. General Mireau
obviously is loath to lose the opportunity and the possibility
of even better circumstances. He decides to stay within the "chain-of-command"
and, in more contemporary parlance, to "go with the flow."
Later when he relays the attack order to Colonel Dax, General
Mireau reveals that is completely aware of the order's high degree
of risk for his troops, methodically estimating what percentages
of casualties will befall his troops at each stage of the attack,
an appalling total of 60 percent, which he says is "acceptable."
Colonel Dax, protesting that the attack is foolish, especially
without significant support, acquiesces, nonetheless, to the order,
without any hints of promotion.
The next day, General Mireau marches through the troops' frontline
trenches, presumably to show leadership and inspire morale. He
stops to ask several soldiers "Are you ready to kill Germans
today?" And it is clear by his perfunctory repetition of
the same question that he is merely going through the motions
of a commander. He then asked another soldier if he has a wife
and when a nearby officer explains that he is shell-shocked, General
Mireau insists there is no such thing as "shell-shocked"
and slaps the man in an episode very similar to the infamous slapping
incident involving General Patton of the U.S. Army in World War
Military protocol does not condone officers slapping soldiers
and Patton was ordered to apologize to his command. General Mireau's
slapping incident occurred in a different war and when human decencies
were not always as keenly observed. World War I slaughtered millions
of Europe's young men and the art of war was not as advanced his
World War II and the Army in this case was French, not English
or American, with presumably somewhat different standards of "rules
It should be noted that General Mireau's pre-battle march through
the trenches is a great tracking shot as the trenches are irregular
in size and winding. The battleground, as opposed to battle, scenes
are extremely effective, fully conveying the horrific prospect
of advancing through such treacherous terrain. The scenes are
as finely done and indelible as those in another great World War
I movie, "All Quiet on the Western Front."
Colonel Dax launches and leads the attack but when he soon notices
that not all the troops have not followed he returns to the trenches
to exhort them to join the fray. Cowering, the men don't want
to, but he demonstrates his leadership and mounts a small ladder
to lead the charge only to be knocked over by a retreating soldier
who has just been shot. The colonel then grudgingly realizes that
the attack is hopeless or "impossible," as Lieutenant
Roget, played by Wayne Morris, cravenly explained to him just
before he began to leave the second charge.
Earlier in the film, Colonel Dax had ordered Lieutenant Roget
to lead a patrol of three the night before the attack and during
that patrol he panicked and pitched a grenade that killed a member
of his own patrol as witnessed by the patrol's other surviving
member - Corporal Phillip Paris, played by Ralph Meeker, who had
gone to school with Lieutenant Roget. Lieutenant Roget flees the
scene and assumes that the corporal will also die, but Corporal
Paris courageously moves forward and discovers the dead body of
the other member of the patrol torn apart by the grenade town
by the lieutenant. Corporal Paris manages to get back to his own
lines and confronts the Lieutenant, only to be interrupted by
Colonel Dax who was looking for the lieutenants's report on the
patrol. The lieutenant, who had written his report already stating
that he was the only survivor withholds it and says it is not
yet ready and praises the corporal. The corporal conceals his
outrage of the lieutenant's conduct and says nothing to Colonel
Dax, again a spur-of-the-moment decision that in real life similarly
challenges moral principles.
The corporal also happens to be one of the three soldiers queried
about their readiness to kill Germans by General Mireau before
the battle and as it works out each of these three are the soldiers
chosen to stand court-martial for execution.
The fact that Lieutenant Roget would select Corporal Paris as
the victim from his company reinforces his great villainy. One
could argue that the lieutentant should have been grateful enough
that the corporal had not exposed his cowardice when the Colonel
interrupted them although the Lieutenant had little reason to
not expect the corporal to somehow and sometime get back at him.
Not only was the Lieutenant a coward who killed one of his own
man, possibly in what would now be considered "friendly fire"
but also he fled, presumably leaving his other patrol member,
the corporal, to die.
Many other movies would treat the patrol and the cowardice of
the lieutenant as an entire film and one could fault Kubrick a
bit for the coincidence of the three soldiers chosen to be executed
also being the three interrogated by General Mireau in the trenches.
Certainly the coincidence is excessive, although the corporal's
role is more understandable as a contrast the evil of the generals
with the evil of the lieutenant. War does not always bring out
the best and men.
Surprisingly, most critics, almost all of who love the film, focus
on the evil of the generals and hardly touch on the evil of the
lieutenant, an omission excusable possibly only about brevity
of their reviews. Kubrick clearly pays a lot of attention to the
lieutenant's character and has Colonel Dax select him to be in
charge of the executions. The colonel clearly has suspicions about
the lieutenant and pointedly refuses to let him off the duty despite
his fervent declaration that he would prefer not to do it. The
colonel spells out forcefully what the lieutenant must to do at
the execution including the coup de grace.
Wayne Morris gives a very good performance, one that is frankly
more complex than other critics have noted. He drinks to bolster
his courage ajd is obviously a weak man, forlorn at being in a
place surrounded by death. He is not honorable. Indeed, he is
very evil, caring only about his own survival at any cost. His
evil is worse than that of the generals. Online, at the front,
one must have confidence and faith in one's comrades. It is very
upfront and personal.
Generals, on the other hand, are expected to make tough decisions
for the greater good of the campaign, the clause. They're not
expected to be very "personal."
General Broulard never adequately explains the urgency of the
attack on the "anthill" and one suspects that all he
knows is that his superiors had ordered him to have the attack
made, presumably under political pressure for an expedient "breakthrough."
It is a little odd that there is no special build-up of reinforcements
for this "push" and its strategic importance is not
made clear. In any event, in the military an order is an order
and individuals are secondary to collective objectives.
In ordering the shelling of his own troops, General Mireau indulges
in an action that has been treated in other movies as a desperate
measure when positions are overrun. In this instance, however,
there was no counterattack and the order was purely punitive and
inexcusable. General Mireau clearly had "lost it" but
Kubrick does not give him the easy out of a "breakdown"
but shows him calm, cool and collected in the meeting with General
Broulard and Colonel Dax after the attack.
The film does not bother to analyze the niceties of temporary
insanity, a defense that would not surface until sometime long
after World War I.
The crux of the film is the role of General Broulard. He is portrayed
as an extremely cultivated and sophisticated man of great charm.
His hands are "clean." He is doing his important job.
The climax of the movie
is when he congratulates Colonel Dax on his coming promotion to
General Mireau's job and compliments him for his brilliant maneuvering.
Colonel Dax vigorously denies such plotting and proclaims his
interest simply to be in his men and justice.
General Broulard is affronted, but realizes that he has wrongly
"read" the colonel's motives and he bristles when Colonel
Dax insists he is not his "boy."
The coda of the film is a scene in which a female German refugee
is forced to sing to entertain the troops. The girl, played by
Christiane Kubrick, the director's third wife, struggles to sing
a popular song and soon the men join in. The colonel walks by,
hears the song, and tells an assistant to give his troops a few
more minutes before they must go back to the front on new orders,
apparently from General Broulard.
The film is beautifully and starkly photographed by George Krause
in black and white and is based on a 1935 novel.
Meeker is stalwart throughout
but even he succumbs to tears and fears as execution nears. He
is human. The other two men are stark contrasts - one is played
by Joe Turkel with quiet stoicism and the other by Timothy Carey
with whimpering incoherence - and both give superb performances.
Richard Anderson is thoroughly and rigidly unlovable as a lackey
officer, Major Saint-Auban, under General Mireau.
Execution scenes are fairly routine in the movies. We are almost
inured to famous last words, dangling, trembling feet, bullet-pocked
walls and even Frank Sinatra recordings. Here the event takes
place not in some jail yard or at a riverbed tree but in the formal
gardens of an impressive European palace. Kubrick does not rush
the scene and it is not as memorable as the lyrical ending of
"Breaker Morant" because this is not a film about comrades
but an angry diatribe against more than those who wages and permit
It does not have a happy ending.
All of the main characters have their foibles, to put it mildly,
although Kirk Douglas's role is the most heroic and honorable.
All of the characters, with the exception of Major Saint-Auban,
are interesting and demonstrate at some point some redeeming virtues.
The greatness of the film lies in Kubrick's unsympathetic depiction
of the fragile balances between reason and emotion, right and
wrong and human frailities. The generals depicted by Macready
and Menjou are not out-and-out beasts, although General Mireau's
command to fire on his troops crosses the line obviously. They
are seasoned professionals, well versed in the politics of their
military profession. They bear responsibility, of course, and
few viewers will shed tears for General Mireau. The victims are
the grunts, the foot soldiers, and theirs is a terrible lot. Why
there are not more mutinies is a mystery but martial law is severe.
Kubrick does not browbeat the issue, but the drum rolls of the
execution scene pound away at the viewers' consciences. What would
they have done in such hellish circumstances?
War, of course, is hell, but the nuances of Kubrick's film suggest
that the human character is not always benign, that righteous
causes do not always conquer, that reason often does not have
time to ripen and that life can be brutal, cruel and fickle. As
the refugee girl pitifully sings the song to the soldiers, their
oafish meanness turns into communal nostalgia for better days
and Colonel Dax hopes that they can enjoy it for a few moments
even if their prospects for survival are dire.
Decency and good intentions are not enough to excuse the slaughter,
the selfishness, the stupidity and the ruthlessness. Colonel Dax
does his best and it is not enough, but his protests to General
Broulard saved some lives and led to the removal of General Mireau.
The real hero of the movie is the artillery officer who refuses
to obey the general's command. That officer, however, has only
a minor role in the film.
"Paths of Glory" is profoundly disturbing and haunting.