With Paths of Glory, Kubrick emerged from the closet of the small-scale genre picture. It was perhaps inevitable that this should also happen in the context of an Important Statement: a film about the horrors of war, and the perfidy, cynicism and inhumanity of the military establishment. The novel from which it was drawn was apparently based on a real incident in the First World War. The French high command, as a matter of policy and prestige, insists that an attack be mounted against a heavily fortified German position. When the troops retreat under withering fire, the command then insists that three of them be selected by lot, court-martialled for cowardice, and shot as an object lesson.
As a protest film, Paths of Glory actually stands up better than most, mainly because Kubrick never relies simply on emotionalism to make his case. He describes the military machinations with a sharpness and a clarity, a sense of intellectual attack worth any amount of pleading on behalf of humanity and justice (though Kirk Douglas, as just such an advocate, brings his own stabbing energy to the role). Kubrick’s structure, his sense of architecture almost, exercises more of a grip than any anti-war argument one might extract from it. In the vast baroque spaces of the chateau where the military have their HQ, one experiences not just the arbitrariness, the selfishness, even the monstrousness of power, but somehow the essence of power. The true horror is the sense of void, of the self-sufficient universe in which these manipulators of men operate.
U.S.A., 1957.Black and white.86 mins.