Film / Paths of Glory

"Patriotism [...] the last refuge of a scoundrel, sir."
Colonel Dax, quoting Samuel Johnson

Paths of Glory (1957) is an early Stanley Kubrick film and also one of his most critically acclaimed.

During World War I, French Army General Mireau (George Macready), seeking a promotion from his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), orders a hopeless attack by his depleted division against a strongly fortified German position. When the attack quickly fails with heavy losses, the enraged Mireau tries to shift the blame for the loss to his soldiers and orders three men to be tried under penalty of death for cowardice, opposed only by his subordinate Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who seeks to save the lives of his men.

This film contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Right until the very end, General Broulard comes across as a kindly old man, even as he's waxing philosophical on the merits of shooting a man every once in awhile to enhance morale.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Mireau drops his concerns about the lifes of his soldiers as soon as Broulard suggests that a promotion is coming if he goes along with the attack.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The two primary villains are aristocratic officers living far from the front lines in luxurious surroundings, showing little care for the lives of the men under their command.
  • Armchair Military: General Mireau is one of the worst.
  • Armies Are Evil: The army orders a hopeless attack, and when it fails, randomly selects three men and sentences them to death in a Kangaroo Court. To add insult on the injury, the three soldiers were conscripts - basically forced to fight against their will.
  • Author Appeal: In real life, Adolph Menjou was a faded 1920s matinee idol who was famous in the 1950s more for his reactionary political views and support of the Hollywood Blacklist. Kubrick convinced Menjou that Broulard was the hero of the film, opposed by the scheming blackmailer Dax.
  • Backhanded Apology: Dax to Broulard:
    Broulard: It would be a pity to lose your promotion before you get it. A promotion you have so very carefully planned for.
    Dax: Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?
    Broulard: Colonel Dax! You will apologize at once or I shall have you placed under arrest!
    Dax: I apologize... for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to HELL before I apologize to you now or ever again!
  • Big Fancy House: The Generals hold audience in a palace, which is used as a counterpoint to the miserable life at the trenches.
  • Black Comedy: Several remarks about the absurdity of the situation and some Gallows Humor about getting killed by a bayonet being far worse than by a machine gun, when two soldiers discuss that death itself is not the problem, but the pain is.
    • One of the three condemned men sees a cockroach and ponders how tomorrow that lowly creature will be alive while he's dead. His colleague stomps on it. "Now you've got the edge on him."
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Dax says it when he's pointing out that Broulard is a Slave to PR and would like to avoid bad press.
  • Cannon Fodder: How the generals treat their men.
  • Chekhov's Skill: His civilian career as a defense attorney becomes critical to Colonel Dax in the second half of the film.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Dax shows that he is brave and fearless, either when he leads men on the battlefield - the first to go over the top, and in the vanguard of the attack - or when he confronts and expresses his disagreement to his superiors and has the stones to talk back. Near the end he openly expresses his disdain at the face of general Broulard.
  • Conscription: French army in the WWI was based on levee en masse.
  • Court-Martialed: Three soldiers are court-martialled for cowardice and disobeying orders after refusing to participate in a suicidal attack. It was going to be 100 men but the general is talked into only charging three, one from each company.
  • Covers Always Lie: Posters like the page image tries fooling viewers into believing this is an action flick when really its more a courtroom drama.
  • Dirty Coward: Lieutenant Roget.
  • Downer Ending: The three innocent men are executed. When Dax returns to his troops, he's informed that they're ordered to return to the front immediately.
  • Drinking on Duty: Roget does this.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Colonel Dax does everything in his power to save his men from the gallows and expose Mireau for the self-serving git he is. Broulard thinks Dax is just another opportunist after Mireau's job, and is stunned when he angrily refuses, and thinks of Dax as just the village idiot.
  • Fake Shemp: Timothy Carey was fired from the film for being difficult to work with, so a double was used for the execution.
  • A Father to His Men: General Mireau puts on an elaborate show about this in the beginning when asked to attack the Anthill, but quickly changes his tune when the possibility of promotion comes up. He's a hypocrite. Colonel Dax plays it completely straight, however.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Both the attack to The Anthill, and Colonel Dax's defence in the court-martial.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The French top brass wants to have the three innocent conscripts shot at any price. No matter what colonel Dax had done, he would not have managed to save his men from execution.
  • General Failure: Both Mireau and Broulard.
  • General Ripper: Mireau
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: Subverted, in that the beautiful girl who sings the song is a terrified German captive, and she sings a sad folk song about love in war.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: General Mireau has a dilly of a scar on his right cheek. The goodness/evilness of said scar is left as an exercise for the reader.
    • That scar was not the work of a makeup artist - George Macready picked it up at a young age in an automobile accident.
  • Glory Hound: General Mireau has no qualms in order to advance his personal glory.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: Despite this movie fitting into the Aristocrats Are Evil trope, the film still fits this trope.
  • Hollywood History / Historical Villain Upgrade: A large part of the reason why this was panned in France for a long, long time; similarities between how the French military actually behaved in World War I and how they are portrayed here tend to be coincidental at best.
  • Impossible Mission: Taking the anthill is unfeasible and everybody knows it, making it also a Suicide Mission.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The Anthill
  • Kangaroo Court: The court-martial is pretty much this.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Comes from Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751):
    The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
    And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
    Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
    The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
  • Make an Example of Them: The execution of three innocent conscripts.
  • Meaningful Name: During the assault on the Anthill, Mireau orders an artillery battery commander to start firing on the troops that aren't leaving the trenches, but he refuses without a written order. The guy's name? Captain Rousseau.
  • Moral Myopia: Broulard, taking the suggestion of having to shoot one hundred enlisted men for cowardice very casually, becomes visibly angry at the suggestion of executing a single officer.
  • The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Roget is seen by at least two of his men as a coward and a drunk.
    • General Mireau, likewise, comes across as someone completely disconnected from the reality of the war he's asking his men to fight, when he reviews the trench troops to "boost their morale."
  • Never My Fault: General Mireau takes this trope to insane levels.
    So now I'm the scapegoat! The only innocent man in this whole affair!
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The movie centers entirely on the French army, but (probably wisely) the American actors don't even try to change their normal accents.
  • The Oner: Several long takes of the trenches when the officers walk across while interacting with the soldiers.
  • Opening Monologue: Exposing the early stages of WWI and the stalemate after the battle of the Marne and as of 1916.
  • Rated M for Manly: While Colonel Dax reviews his troops before the attack, enemy shells detonate less than 10 yards away from the trench. He doesn't even flinch. Then when he blows the whistle to go over the top and advance across the No-Man's Land, he's out in front leading the way with enemy bombardment and machine-gun fire going off on all sides. Grrrrrr.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Dax and artillery captain Rousseau.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying!: The generals' ball in the chateau at the same time when the enlisted men wallow in the mud in trenches.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several examples. General Mireau denies it stating that "there is no such thing as shell shock."
  • Shot at Dawn: The three innocent conscripts.
  • Shout-Out: General Mireau's striking the shell-shocked soldier is reminiscent of the infamous George Patton "slapping incident".
  • Shown Their Work: The wattled revetments of the trenches are correctly done in the French style. The concessions to filmmaking were making the trenches wider and straighter than they would normally have been, to allow the camera dolly to pass through.
    • Notably averted in the non-technical aspects; one of the specific reasons why this infuriated the French Public was because it inaccurately portrayed the World War I French military doing things even the World War II Soviet penal units would have balked at.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: Colonel Dax turns General Broulard's dismissal of Dax's idealism back on the General with a single resigned remark.
    General Broulard: We're fighting a war, Dax, a war that we've got to win. Those men didn't fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist that he answer them. Wherein have I done wrong?
    Colonel Dax: Because you don't know the answer to that question... I pity you.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Broulard gives Colonel Dax a lecture to this effect near the end, in response to Dax's Suddenly SHOUTING!.
    General Broulard: Colonel Dax, you're a disappointment to me. You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command. You are an idealist - and I pity you as I would the village idiot.
  • Smug Snake: Major Saint-Arnaud when acting as prosecutor during the trial of the doomed soldiers. During the first act, he was mostly a Yes-Man to General Mireau; during the execution, he has the good grace to look thoroughly uncomfortable while reading the sentence of the court.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING! / "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dax disgustedly ranks out Broulard for thinking that he was just after a promotion, causing Broulard to demand that he apologize:
    Colonel Dax: I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL BEFORE I APOLOGIZE TO YOU NOW OR EVER AGAIN!
  • That's an Order!: A dramatic example; Gen. Mireau orders an artillery barrage on his own troops several times over the phone, but the battery commander refuses to execute the order unless it's in writing and signed by the General.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: That shell-shocked soldier General Mireau sends back for "cowardice" during his pre-attack inspection displays this vacant stare and can't quite answer questions about his family.
  • Unfriendly Fire
  • Unflinching Walk: A variant. As Colonel Dax inspects his men before assaulting the Anthill, the enemy is bombarding their trench. Shells are exploding — loudly — less than 20 feet away from him. Yet, he calmly continues walking past his troops without so much as a twitch when each blast goes off.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is based on Souan Corporals' Affair 1915, when four innocent soldiers were executed to encourage the others.
  • War Is Hell: The movie carries a deep anti-war (and anti-military) message. The French generals are portrayed as hypocrites with little (if any) regard for the lives of their soldiers, the whole campaign is absurd and the so-called military justice is a joke.
  • We Have Reserves: In order to 'encourage' a company of men who aren't advancing, General Mireau orders his artillery to bombard his own trenches.
  • You Have Failed Me: General Mireau on his men.
  • Zerg Rush: The usual WWI tactics on both sides. Fails miserably against fortified positions, such as The Anthill.