Based on an actual incident in World War I that was hushed up by the French authorities at the time, Paths of Glory is set at the front, in France, in 1916.
At his head-quarters in an elegant château, General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), a member of the French General Staff, asks his subordinate, General Mireau (George Macready), to send his division against a well-defended German fortress dubbed the “Anthill”.
Mireau then meets with the 701st Regiment’s commanding ofﬁcer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), to plan the attack. Dax leads the ﬁrst wave of soldiers on the attack on the Anthill amidst intense ﬁre, but the assault fails and none of the troops make it to the German trenches.
The men of B Company subsequently decline to leave their trenches. and Mireau commands his artillery to openﬁre on the “cowards” to encourage them into battle.
However, artillery commander Rousseau (John Stein) won’t ﬁre without conﬁrmation and in the meantime, Dax returns to the trenches and attempts to spur B Company into action.
In the aftermath of the failed attack, Mireau chooses to court-martial 100 of his own soldiers for alleged cowardice, as he does not want to take on any blame himself.
Broulard urges him to reduce the number to three: one from each company.
Mireau chooses Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel). Dax, who served as a criminal defence lawyer before the war, volunteers to defend the men in court.
The military trial soon devolves into a farce and the three innocent men are convicted and executed with great ritual. One, who is wounded, is carried to the stake on a stretcher.
While not quite an anti-war film Paths Of Glory is a relentless and powerful attack on the military mind. The anti-militarist stance is so powerful that the film was banned in parts of Europe (especially France) – and in US military theatres – for some years.
Adolphe Menjou is near perfect as the self-obsessed general, and the three doomed men are all excellent.
The success of the film, however, is primarily due to Kubrick. His direction and handling of the actors is masterful, and he helped to write the script with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson.
The movie established Kubrick as an important figure in American cinema.
The film climaxes, after the executions, with the most emotional scene Kubrick ever directed, in which a roomful of jeering soldiers force a captured German girl (Susanne Christian, later Christiane Kubrick) to entertain them by singing a song, only to be moved to silence by her awkward, sincere, melancholy performance.
Paths Of Glory has been called the best film of the 1950s, the best war film and one of the best films ever. It is powerful, moving and thought-provoking and, in its reality, its closeness to its subject, its lack of didacticism, it is one of the most disturbing and genuinely distressing films ever made.
Private Pierre Arnaud