Paths of Glory (1957) is an early Stanley Kubrick's film and also one of his most critically acclaimed.A French general during World War One, seeking a promotion, orders a hopeless attack by his depleted division against a strongly fortified German position. When the attack quickly fails with heavy losses, the enraged general 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 Narration: 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.
Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several examples. General Mireau denies it stating that "there is no such thing as shell shock."
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 One French military doing things even the World War II Soviet penal units would have balked at.
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.
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.
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.
War Is Hell: The movie carries a deep anti-war 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.