Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Paths of Glory


This movie totally stunned me the first time I saw it. I could hardly believe such a thing could happen. But it could. Not frequently, but it did happen. Two generals decide an enemy position must be taken in two days. Never mind that World War One had been going on for two years and the position of the trenches hadn’t changed more than 100 yards. Never mind that, as one general put it, with total dispassion: “We’ll lose five percent from our own artillery barrage. Another ten percent getting through our own wire. Another twenty percent getting through the German wire …” The upshot of which is he expected to lose more than half of his men. And that was a best case, impossibly optimistic assessment. The assault proves to be impossible, and the general wants to execute 100 of his own soldiers for cowardice. He is talked into murdering only three, any three. One of the unlucky ones was knocked unconscious before he could get out of the trenches. Another sustains a brain injury during the night, waiting for the firing squad. So they prop him up on a stretcher and shoot him …

It’s no surprise that the French military hated this film, even all those years later in 1957. The surprising thing is that it even got made. There was such pressure on Stanley Kubrick that he contemplated going with a happy ending, a reprieve at the last moment. But the star, Kirk Douglas in his finest role, held firm. He caught a lot of flak for it, professionally, but he got the last laugh, as this is one of the best war movies of all time and everyone knows it now. Ralph Meeker is great in this, too. And the two generals, played wonderfully well by Adolph Menjou and George Mcready, are two of the most loathsome characters ever put on film. Hannibal Lecter? Freddy Krueger? Pussies. These generals killed tens of thousands without batting an eye, and slept well at night. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. If I was King of the World at the end of WWI, I would have lined all the generals up against a wall—French, German, American, British, Austro-Hungarian, whatever—and gut-shot them. And waited for them to die.

There is a scene at the very end, after the executions, that always kills me, and I’m never completely sure why. The single female to appear in the film (who two years later would marry Kubrick and be his wife until his death) (and not a single German soldier appears in the film) is brought out on a little stage. She’s German, and the intent seems to be to humiliate her. All the troops in the audience seem more than ready to do so. Then she starts to sing a little song in German. She’s no Jenny Lind, but the men quiet down and soon tears are leaking down their cheeks and they are singing along with her. She seems to represent their lost humanity, their hope of survival … many things. But it is a brilliant way to end such a nasty film.