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.
A French general (George Macready) orders Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to fire on his own troops because some of them refused to go over the top in a suicidal attack. Dax defies the order and three men are chosen at random for court-martial.
Despite a vigorous defence at a military trial, the innocent men are convicted and executed with great ritual. One, who is wounded, is carried to the stake on a stretcher. The furious Colonel resigns his commission.
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 Mejou is near perfect as the self-obsessed general, and the three doomed men (Timothy Cary, Ralph Meeker and Joseph Turkel) 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 50s, 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