There is a curious history to Paths of Glory. The film that Stanley Kubrick made in 1957 was adapted from a novel by Humphrey Cobb. Cobb (1899-1944) was an American who enlisted in the Canadian army in 1916 and fought in France in the First World War. His novel, published in 1935, was based on an actual incident. The novel had no title when it was submitted for publication, so the publisher held a contest to find an appropriate title and the winner suggested the words from Gray's elegy.
Another book about the First World War called Paths Of Glory existed before 1935, a collection of journalism written for the Saturday Evening Post by an American named Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944). The earlier book, published in 1915, makes no mention of the incident on which Humphrey Cobb's novel concentrates. The two Cobbs were not related, although both of them wrote for Hollywood films - Irvin wrote titles for silent films and some of his Judge Priest stories were adapted to the screen by John Ford, and Humphrey wrote the script for the Humphrey (!) Bogart film, San Quentin - and both men died in New York City in 1944 within 45 days of each other.
In 1957, when Stanley Kubrick was hired by Dore Schary at MGM to work on film scripts, Kubrick remembered reading Humphrey Cobb's novel and he suggested it to Schary. When Schary showed no enthusiasm for it, Kubrick bought the rights to the book from (Humphrey) Cobb's widow. After writing a script with Calder Willingham, Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris showed it to Kirk Douglas, who saw its potential for his own company Bryna Productions. Douglas got distribution backing from United Artists, and shooting of the film Paths of Glory was scheduled for locations in Bavaria. According to Douglas, when Kubrick arrived in Munich at the Bavaria Filmkunst Studios for the shoot, he showed Douglas changes he had made in the script. Douglas told him to stick to the script he approved.
Being an American film director in the 1950s presented Kubrick with two problems - how could he be successful and keep himself independent of the Hollywood system, and how could he avoid becoming just another exception - like Orson Welles - that proved the rule? Kubrick did the opposite, quietly making a name for himself in America before finding a way, with Lolita (1962), of getting himself out of America altogether. Establishing his production company, Hawk, Ltd., in the UK, it was there that Kubrick produced his best work and where he resided until his death in 1999.
During the making of his film version of War and Peace, King Vidor claimed that he had an advantage over Napoleon when he staged the battle of Borodino for the film, since he was in command of both the French and Russian armies. Battle scenes have occupied the creative resources of some of the greatest filmmakers, quite understandably because of their extreme visual impact. Shots of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people doing violence to one another are unlikely to leave any viewer feeling ambivalent about them. Film is a kinetic art - hence the word cinema. Our eyes are attracted irresistibly to movement. And what could possibly be more kinetic in a film than a battle scene?
The trouble with battle scenes for the filmmaker is precisely their ability to thrill. Even when, as in Apocalypse Now, a filmmaker tries to show that war is of its nature insane, he often succumbs to the spectacular qualities of combat. If one were to ask viewers of Apocalypse Now to name their favorite scene, I doubt that many would fail to name the famous morning helicopter raid, with speakers on board the helicopters blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and a deranged Colonel telling us how the napalm smells like victory.
While he wasn't exactly a pacifist, Kubrick was avowedly anti-war. He tackled the subject of war head-on in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, both set amidst two conspicuously futile wars. The First World War had been tackled before in American films, most notably in King Vidor's The Big Parade and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. Kubrick used a German military adviser, a Baron no less, to help him re-create the trench warfare depicted so vividly in Paths of Glory. The trenchworks and the terrain of No Man's Land (the cratered, barb-wired stretch of land between the enemy trenches) that the production constructed reminded me of Siegfried Sassoon's lines from his poem "Aftermath":
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
The scenes also make one aware of how immobile and unchanging the war had been for two years. Having been a soldier myself (although I never saw combat), watching the battle scenes in Paths of Glory is tough going, even after watching it for the fourth time.
But what makes the scenes most effective is Kubrick's avoidance of the worst mistake that so many directors make in such scenes: momentary departures from the perspective of the soldiers to a panoramic, or bird's eye, view. Even Steven Spielberg committed this error in Saving Private Ryan during the landing scene when he cut away to show us the view of the beach from a German pill box. Kubrick twice shows us a periscopic view of the French lines during his battle scene, but it was used to show us what General Murot sees from the safety of his command post in the rear.
It is 1916. After two years of fighting that has resulted in staggering casualties and a virtual strategic stalemate along a front stretching from Belgium to Switzerland, two French generals conceive yet another offensive to take a position known as the "Ant-Hill." General Murot, who sees it as an opportunity for promotion, goes directly to the front line to inform Colonel Dax, commander of a battalion holding the position closest to the objective of the plan. Dax objects to the plan but assures the General that he will lead the attack himself. When the attack takes place, and the Ant-Hill is not reached by the French soldiers, Dax discovers that many of the men in his battalion never left their trenches. When Murot learns of this, he orders the artillery battery to open fire on their own lines, but a radio operator refuses to relay the order to the guns. Murot demands that a hundred men from the battalion be shot for cowardice, but he settles for just three. Colonel Dax, a former defense attorney, volunteers to defend the three soldiers, who are chosen at random. But the trial is a sham and the men are sentenced to death. When Dax is offered General Murot's position, he angrily refuses it and he is told that the men of his battalion are being ordered back to the front.
The film has serious weaknesses. The acting is uneven because there were two different kinds of actors in the film. George Macready and Adolphe Menjou, crusty old Hollywood veterans, do their best with their roles. They were both expert at playing villains, except that their roles in Paths of Glory were based on actual people in actual situations. Their performances make this a little hard to believe. When they are onscreen with actors whose concentration is on their characters rather than the camera, they seem unreal.
But the two generals they play are quite good at reminding the viewer of what every soldier knows: that they are being commanded by old men who have neither knowledge nor interest in the hazards they endure daily. When it is agreed that some of the men will be court martialled for cowardice, General Murot wants a hundred men shot. He's talked down to twelve before he then proposes just three. The numbers are a clear reminder of Genesis, in which Abraham talks to the Lord, who "sat in the tent door in the heat of the day." He tells Abraham that Sodom and its inhabitants is to be destroyed, but Abraham asks him if within the city he can find fifty righteous would He "spare the place." The Lord agrees. Then Abraham talks him down to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, until he gets to ten.
Watching Kirk Douglas, who celebrated his 99th birthday on December 9, it's easy to see what attracted him to the role of Colonel Dax. We're reminded that it's his film when we see him for the first time, shirtless, showing off a physique he was evidently proud of. His impressive pecs are almost as famous as his cleft chin.
Paths of Glory is a powerful indictment of the stupidity and ambition of the commanders who were prosecuting the war, but it does not go easy on the common soldiers, either, who are represented as sometimes courageous but also incredibly thick, even sheepish when ordered to go "over the top" to almost certain death. Some of the soldiers are played by actors whom Kubrick directed before and since, like Joseph Turkel and Timothy Carey (despite Carey's being fired during the shoot). They're familiar faces to Kubrick fans, but their acting is noticeably off. When Carey starts bawling when he learns he is to be executed, I wondered what kept Kubrick from firing him sooner.
Some of the film's irony is unnecessarily pointed. The music under the opening credits is the Marseillaise. I remember reading a review by Truffaut that contemptuously mentioned an inaccuracy in the comportment of the soldiers (Truffaut served in the French army). What Truffaut didn't know was that, by law, the uniforms and comportment of soldiers in a film cannot be a hundred per cent accurate. And I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a firing squad would have been conducted smack in front of a chateau in which the general staff in headquartered.
Then there is the ending, which occupies the final six minutes of the film. There was, according to Kubrick's producer, James Harris, to be a "happy ending" that was actually in the novel and was put in the script. The ending that was shot wasn't exactly happy, but was so oddly inconsistent with the grim tone of the rest of the film that some critics (correctly, I think) regarded it as a cop out. Many others, however, think the scene is some kind of affirmation of humanity.
In the closing scene, a crowd of French soldiers from Colonel Dax's regiment is drinking noisily in a tavern. Dax stops outside the tavern and looks inside. The owner of the tavern appears on an improvised stage above the tables and introduces a pretty young girl. The men react predictably with whistles and jeers. Calling for quiet, the man explains to the soldiers that the girl is German. The tavern owner tells the girl to sing, so she sings the only song she can think of - a sentimental song about a German "hussar." The effect of her quiet, amateurish singing brings tears to many of the soldiers eyes and many of them join her, humming the tune. Dax looks at the ground, knowing that the men are soon to return to the front, tells his adjutant to let them alone for a little longer, then turns and walks away.
The scene is so inconsistent with everything that comes before it that it almost seems transplanted from another film. The only excuse for its existence is the fact that the German girl, identified as Susanne Christian in the credits, became Christiane Kubrick, Kubrick's wife, shortly after shooting was completed, and they remained married for the rest of Kubrick's life.
Paths of Glory is much more than just an above-average Hollywood film. It is an achingly vivid, nervy, and highly original look at war. And Kubrick would expand on what he learned about shooting combat scenes in the assault on Burpleson Air Force Base in his masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, the ultimate statement about the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.).