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With: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick, Jerry Hausner, Peter Capell, Emile Meyer, Bert Freed, Kem Dibbs, Timothy Carey, Fred Bell
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 09/18/1957
IMDB

Paths of Glory (1957)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cockroaches

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Perhaps the simplest movie Stanley Kubrick ever made, Paths of Glory may also be the greatest anti-war movie ever made. It runs only 88 minutes, and is practically cruel in its swiftness, the way it matter-of-factly dispenses its injustice.

Though it's spoken in English, it tells a story of the French army during the First World War. General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) decides that, to break the current stalemate in the war, his men need to take a certain bit of ground called "the anthill." He convinces General Mireau (George Macready) to send his men on what will surely be a suicide mission.

The attack, led by Regiment Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), goes badly. The men fail to advance, and many are killed. A furious Mireau wants to court-martial everyone involved, but is talked down to choosing three men as scapegoats. They are, for various reasons, or no reason at all, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel).

Col. Dax attempts to defend them at their "trial," but it all goes nightmarishly south before anyone can blink. The men are court-marshaled. The movie ends on a memorable scene in a cantina where a beautiful German woman, after being cruelly teased, moves the men to tears with a song.

Two other moments are crucial. Before the attack, General Mireau takes a tour of the trenches, cluelessly trying to boost morale. When he comes across a shellshocked soldier, he angrily dismisses the poor bugger, claiming that shell shock does not exist. In another moment, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) is charged with a nighttime scouting mission prior to the attack. Roget has been drinking. He panics and hurls a grenade killing one of his own men. Corporal Paris is the survivor, and saw the whole thing, which is the reason he is chosen for the court-martial.

Kubrick outlines all these various, complex levels of hubris and blame-passing with utter clarity, and without wasting any time. It took a master director to capture this tone just right; so many others have tried and failed with their preachy or ponderous anti-war films. Kubrick walks a fine line between a dark comedy -- though there are certainly no laughs -- and a touch of shock. It undoubtedly helped that the great pulp novelist Jim Thompson co-authored the screenplay. The film never lets things linger too long or get too heavy, and Kubrick never lets his own opinion be known (he never preaches).

What Kubrick does instead, aside from the perfect pacing and tone, is concentrate on the visuals. Not unlike other films from the period, Touch of Evil and Sweet Smell of Success, he establishes deep, rich cavernous shots, establishing a huge amount of fluid space; he then juxtaposes the space of the officer's headquarters with the winding trenches on the frontlines.

Paths of Glory was Kubrick's fourth feature, and his first attempt at the big time, after the relative low budgets and "B" movie status of his first three films, Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss and The Killing (although the latter is inarguably his first masterpiece).

It was only made thanks to the involvement of star Kirk Douglas. It cost a little less than $1 million and broke even, more or less, but the acclaim it received was worth it. Interviewed in 1969, Douglas said, "There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now." Now, nearly sixty years after the film was made, it's still true.

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