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Film / Paths of Glory

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"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. It's an adaptation of a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, with a screenplay by Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham.

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.

Paths of Glory is Very Loosely Based on a True Story, namely the Souain corporals affair. The event is considered one of the most egregious and most publicized examples of military injustice during World War I in France.

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.
  • The Alcoholic: Lieutenant Roget is an incorrigible drinker who is frequently seen drunk on the job.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Mireau drops his concerns about the lives 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.
  • Ascended Extra: 701st Infantry Regimental Commander Colonel Dax, who was merely a minor figure in the novel, gains a much larger role in the film. Colonel Dax is promoted to a central protagonist and is the heart of the film, as he's now a the fearless leader of his troops and wants to defend the three men sentenced to death.
  • 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!
  • Bait the Dog: General Mireau is initially skeptical about the proposed assault on the German-held position, citing how countless numbers of his own men would die over an operation that has a very slim chance of success. However, when General Broulard mentions that there would be a shiny new medal in it for Mireau, well...
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The attack on the Anthill provides a smaller scale example.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: The two corrupt generals, Mireau and Broulard, are the villains of the film. They prompt the suicide attack on the "Ant Hill" which only serves to get scores of their own men killed. Later, they arrange for the random selection and execution of Dax's men. The worst part is that they get away with it.
  • 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 squashes 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.
  • Chromosome Casting: The German singer has the only noteworthy female role in 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 in the face of General Broulard.
  • Conscription: The 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 try to fool viewers into believing this is an action flick when it's really more of a courtroom drama.
  • Curbstomp Battle: The attack against the Anthill. The French soldiers are completely massacred by artillery and machine guns before getting anywhere near the German defenses.
  • Dirty Coward: Lieutenant Roget, and General Mireau himself.
  • 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. The only ray of hope is that General Mireau's cowardice and deceit will be exposed and he'll be publicly humiliated, though the implication is that he'll eventually be able to save his career after the dust settles.
  • 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.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Played straight by Paris, who is initially terrified of his impending execution but straightens up when the time comes. Averted by Ferol, who bursts into tears and keeps saying he's afraid to die.
  • 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.
    • Ambiguous— Dax at first refuses the attack order, but relents when he is threatened with removal from command. YMMV on whether he too is ambitious, or guesses a replacement may be just like Mireau and his men need him.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Both the attack on 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.
  • Gallows Humor:
    Paris: See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It will have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.
    (Ferol crushes the cockroach)
    Ferol: Now you've got the edge on him.
  • General Failure: Both Mireau and Broulard.
  • 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.
  • Glory Hound: Mireau orders a hopeless attack against the Anthill because Broulard promises him a promotion if it's taken.
  • 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. In most of Macready's films, the makeup people tried to minimize it, but Kubrick makes a point of emphasizing it here.
      • It most likely represents a dueling scar, which was common among all the armies of the period.
  • Glory Hound: General Mireau has no qualms in order to advance his personal glory.
  • Hollywood History/Historical Villain Upgrade: While loosely based on the real Souain corporals affair, several aspects are exaggerated - not to mention that the incident itself was incredibly exceptional to begin with. Of particular note is the portrayal of generals partying in chateaus while their men die on the field, which is in direct contrast to the historical record where they were statistically more likely to become casualties than enlisted men. The biggest reason the film caused so much outrage in France, however, was due to how the war is viewed differently in the French- and English-speaking worlds. Essentially, while World War I in the Anglosphere's popular conscious is often viewed as futile and pointless (although this view has been challenged and scrutinized in recent decades), in France it's usually seen as a war of national defense against an aggressive and militaristic invader. To give a rough analogy, imagine if the same general plot and message was transplanted to the Pacific Theatre of World War II, only with American soldiers and generals.
  • Hypocrite: Mireau states his disdain early on for generals who lead from behind a desk, but is never shown to actually participate in any frontline combat at any point. When he orders a suicidal attack against the Anthill, he observes the whole thing from the comfort of a faraway bunker, and the entire reason he ordered the assault is so he could be promoted to a higher, more comfortable position.
  • 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.
  • Insane Admiral: Mireau orders wasteful attacks against nearly impregnable targets and orders his own troops to be shelled when the attack fails.
  • Kangaroo Court: The court-martial is pretty much this.
  • Karma Houdini: It's implied that Mireau will probably escape his inquiry without any bad consequences.
    • Averted with his real-life inspiration, who was relieved of duty in early 1916 and transferred to the reserves. After the war had ended whatever reputation he had left was destroyed once his actions came to light in 1921, with even the military press censuring him.
  • Large Ham:
    • George Macready ramps up the melodrama as General Mireau, but it fits the character well.
    • Surprisingly, master ham Timothy Carey is fairly subdued as Ferol, at least until execution time.
  • 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.
  • Manly Tears: The German girl's song moves an entire room full of hardened soldiers to tears. Even more effective since previously the soldiers had been cat calling and insulting her for her German heritage.
  • 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. When it comes time for the court-martial, he's quick to throw the one who most recently criticized him under the bus in retaliation.
    • 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 that's it. You're making me the goat! The only completely 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.
  • Opinion Flip Flop: Mireau soberly explains that his men are in no condition to take the Ant Hill, then completely reverses himself when he hears that he might get a promotion if he's successful.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The only reason that General Broulard talks Mireau into having three men executed instead of one hundred is that the latter would be seen as needlessly harsh and thus damage the generals' reputations. He also chooses to distance himself from the court-martial, because he senses that it might backfire on Mireau, so he lets him take full responsibility.
  • 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.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The French public were outraged by how the leadership of the French army was portrayed as horribly cruel, and the film was banned in France for a number of years for it. The whole film is based loosely on a real-life incident.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Dax and artillery captain Rousseau.
  • Ripped from the Headlines:
    • General Mireau's striking the shell-shocked soldier is reminiscent of the infamous George Patton "slapping incident".
    • The entire film is based on the Souain corporals affair.
  • 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.
  • 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.note 
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: Even though they're separated by three decades, it's easy to find common threads between this film and Kubrick's later Full Metal Jacket. They both explore War Is Hell and the Skewed Priorities of military commanders.
  • Suddenly Shouting/"The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dax disgustedly rants 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!
  • Take Me Instead: As the generals want to Make an Example of Them Dax tries to offer himself to be executed rather than any of his men... while staring pointedly at Mireau and suggesting the best person to be punished would be "the officer most responsible for the attack".
  • That's an Order!: A dramatic example. General 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.
  • Translation Convention: All the characters are French soldiers, but all the dialogue is spoken in perfect English with American accents.
  • Unfriendly Fire:
    • In the beginning of the film, an infantry soldier is accidentally killed by his fellow's grenadenote  and his death is covered up by saying he was killed by machine gun fire.
    • General Mireau orders the French artillery to fire on his own men after failing to attack "the Anthill", an attack he himself opposed until he was offered a promotion, and was only thwarted when the artillery commander decided to start Bothering by the Book and demand the request to be presented in writing.
  • 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 the Souan Corporals' Affair 1915, when four innocent soldiers were executed to encourage the others.
  • Video Credits: Interestingly, in reverse billing order, with Kirk Douglas featured last.
  • 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: General Mireau orders an attack against the Anthill knowing that the optimistic prediction is that the regiment would take 65% casualties during the assault. When the attack predictably bogs down, in order to 'encourage' a company of men who aren't advancing, Mireau orders his artillery to bombard his own trenches.
    Hmm, say, 5% killed by our own barrage. That's a very generous allowance. 10% more in getting through no-man's-land... and 20% more getting through the wire. That leaves 65% with the worst part of the job over. Let's say another 25% in actually taking the Anthill. We're still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.
  • You Have Failed Me: General Mireau on his men.
  • Zerg Rush: It fails miserably against fortified positions, such as The Anthill.