Paths of Glory (1957), one of the many great films by the iconic Stanley Kubrick, is somewhat of a lesser-known entry in his filmmography, but in a way it is as violent as Full Metal Jacket (1987). Due to its portrayal of the French military it was not shown in France until 1975, which is unfair since the actions depicted could have been those of any army that fought in World War I. Wars are generally insane, but that particular war holds a special place in the pantheon of madness for employing trench warfare, which effectively turned battlefields into killing fields for all soldiers.
As it is one of the few movies to portray historical events in a boldly accurate way, despite having American actors play French characters, I got to see Paths of Glory in a high school history class during my last year in Chile in 2002. I had a pretty good teacher who held an interesting debate after the end credits to see which officer was most at fault. It is a conversation that could yield a lot of different answers. As a lighter companion piece I believe history classes should also include episodes from Blackadder Goes Forth, which I had started to watch at around the same time, as it covers some of the same material from the British point of view with the humour of Ben Elton and a great performance by Rowan Atkinson. Sometimes violence is so absurd the only way out is laughter.
Kubrick’s film has no humour as it follows French army commanders and their soldiers whose job is to defeat German forces by jumping out of the trenches only to be mowed down my machine guns and artillery. The thing about that concept is that high-ranking officials like General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) have the luxury have planning those kinds of suicidal attacks from behind enemy lines. Broulard wants the troupes to take over a German position known as the Anthill, which Mireau knows perfectly well is next to impossible and will result in heavy casualties. However, the possibility of a promotion makes him reconsider.
The attack goes pretty much as Mireau had initially predicted, with the French troops suffering mass casualties and none of them even reaching the Germans. Members of one company even refuse to leave the trenches, causing Mireau to order his artillery to fire on his own countrymen. Once the battle is over and the smoke clears blame is assigned, but not on anyone too high on the totem pole. Broulard and Mireau choose to court marshal three soldiers from each company for cowardice as an example to the rest of the troops.
The rest of the film unfolds as a courtroom drama, with Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas, who would later work again with Kubrick on Spartacus) defending the three men. Having been on the battlefield and known that the mission was bound to fail, Dax tries to use his experience as a lawyer in civilian life to spare them a firing squad, but this is a trial for show, not justice. It is easy for men like Mireau to accuse soldiers of cowardice, but where was he when they were risking their lives by running straight into enemy fire?
There are many devastating scenes in the movie, from a German singer performing for the troops before they are to head back to the slaughter, to Mireau walking among them before battle and asking each soldier if they are “ready to kill more Germans” as though he was a coach asking players if they are eager to get back on the field. When one talks about how scared he is Mireau has him removed from the regiment because what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder today was considered cowardice back then. A more appropriate description for being scared witless at the idea of rushing towards falling bombs and machine gun fire would be common sense.
When my history teacher asked the class who we thought was the most at fault most of us went with Mireau and Broulard. Surprisingly our teacher went with Colonel Dax, because Dax knows how about conditions are out there yet he still decides to lead them into battle. Personally I would rather blame the people ordering him to do it in the first place. If a film remains not only relevant, but debatable 50 years after its release you know the director has done something right.