Great war films are rarely ever about the actual war. The best films of the genre find ways to explore things around or within a given war to create a fascinating film. This is, in part, because the least nuanced, complex and interesting part about a war is the part where people start shooting each other. One side runs at the other side, shooting commences, people die and an end result is met. Paths of Glory is interested in exploring the events that precede and come after one particular battle.
Set during World War I in the French army, the impending battle is an impossible one, a charge to take the “Anthill.” Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), the highest officer actually fighting in the trenches, tries to persuade his superiors that the plan is ridiculous but Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready) are adamant and orders are orders. The battle commences and failure arrives. Indignant and angry, the French Generals decide to make an example of a few men who are guilty of nothing.
At its core, the film is an exploration between the disparity of the administration of war and the actual workforce of the war: the soldiers. As lofty generals strategize, they’re thinking more in terms of press coverage, appearances and idealized position, less about the actual efficiencies of war and how to risk the least amount of lives possible. When one of the generals visits the troops in the trenches he cheerfully asked muddied sullen men if they are “ready to kill more germans?” His chipper, upbeat tone reflects his inability to understand the true nature of the war he is in charge of fighting.
The film explores this issue without directly bringing it to bear on the dialogue. It would be easy for Douglas to spout lines about generals who know nothing of the trenches, but instead the film shows this divide by portraying the generals in complete denial of the reality of the war they are fighting. It would be easy to give condemnation speeches, and one does eventually come, but the skill of the film is how much it relies upon developing the characters to create the divide instead of directly drawing attention to it.
To this end, the cast is stellar. Kirk Douglas is not always the most subtle of actors, but he brings a dry wit and a firm presence to the role, a tough man that still has a clear affection for his men. George Macready is great as this sniveling general, giving a veracious menace behind a veneer of civilized life. Adolphe Menjou is equally good, but has a more docile, agreeable tilt, softly working his plans, almost with an air of indifference or apathy to the whole process.
Most of the film consists of the three talking, which could be dull to watch if not for Stanley Kubrick’s direction. The opening conversation of the film could have been a static two shot, but instead Kubrick has the men walk about the room, following them with his camera, bringing some action to a scene that would in another film simply be pure dialogue. It’s this extra effort that once again goes a long way in distinguishing Kubrick from so many other directors.
His visual style is, as always, superb. Bringing some of the visual atmosphere of The Killing, he makes a harrowing, nightmare-esque battle sequence that proves to be the visual centerpiece of the film. But even after that he’s finding these bold and compelling ways to use the images to heighten the drama. There’s one harrowing, deathly scene in particular that has such a great visual impact to it without being showy or artsy.
Kubrick’s ability to walk that line, to craft the visuals that enhance the storytelling and the dialogue to hint at the thematic undercurrent displays a great skill and subtlety to the craft. Yes, it’s a bold and audacious film at times, but only when it needs to be. The surprise is in how subtle, quiet and thoughtful the film can be given that so many war movies are about the rabble, noise and violence.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing