Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eleven


#11 — Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
War films have long been a staple of Hollywood, a situation only compounded by the staggering surplus of stories that could be culled from WWII, a global conflict that could be forever mined for material that deflected its horrors with a deeply felt sense of honor. Many directors tilted their cameras at that genre, but I wonder how many, even the many that were veterans, thought about exactly why war was such a fruitful source of stories, especially stories that worked in the confines of cinema, both compact (in terms of storytelling time, when measured against a novel) and expansive (the size of the screen itself). Certainly conflict, the lifeblood of drama, is built right in. More than that, there’s a unshakable intensity that heightens emotions and necessitates the sort of rapid decision-making that leads to impetuous action and heated rhetoric. These are the aspects of war pictures that made them appealing to Stanley Kubrick. The fierce moral choices that needed to be made in the heat of battle and the exhaustion of the aftermath played right into his artistic assessment of humanity’s ongoing folly.

Paths of Glory was Kubrick’s fourth feature and his first of many that could be termed, without undue hyperbole, as a masterpiece. Based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of World War I, which Kubrick remember reading when he was younger, is film is focused on a group of French soldiers engaged in trench warfare, closing in on a piece of strategically important German territory termed “The Anthill.” In depicting the battlefield, Kubrick opts for a muddy verisimilitude that feels laudably out of step with the contemporary depictions of war. Indeed, it is brutal and ugly enough that it anticipates Steven Spielberg’s rightly acclaimed Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s unflinching view of warfare was considered groundbreaking. Kubrick simply got there forty years earlier, though the squeamish strictures of the time prevented him from engaging the situation with the same sort of graphic honesty. That Kubrick still manages to make the scenes equally harrowing is a demonstration of the unyielding fierceness of his vision.

Kubrick also develops striking profundities through the contrasts he creates. The soldiers on the front lines are stuck in the worst of circumstances, but the military leaders who direct them are ensconced in lavish comfort countless miles away, plotting strategy from the safety of a seized mansion. I maintain no other director has such a keen sense of physical space than Kubrick, and he gets the most out of the opposing places, moving his camera with shrewd freedom in each, managing to convey the lives of the separate locations in the process. This builds to the most poignant, powerful, depressing contrast of all. The generals make a disastrous tactical choice, then choose to cover up their incompetence by charging one hundred random selected soldiers with cowardice, a charge that carries a penalty of death if they’re found guilty. The men are defended by their direct superior (Kirk Douglas), a man who practiced law in his civilian life. Despite his clear capabilities, the court martial is rigged from the start. Military justice has no concern for truth or moral integrity. Like every other aspect of war, it is there to create casualties, with no other evident purpose. The title Paths of Glory is drawn from Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard,” which explains that “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Kubrick makes the truth and wisdom of that verse hit and hard and sharp as a coffin lid slamming shut.

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