Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1957, 84 min.). It is 1916 and the first world war has been stalled in the soil for two years. Within the ornate and sunny rooms of a French palace used as field headquarters, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) congenially informs General Mireau (George Macready) that the troops must storm “the Anthill”—a German stronghold that cannot be conquered without massive casualties. Mireau initially resists, but the order is made sweeter by Broulard’s off-hand remark that this would win Mireau a promotion, and another star. Later, Gen. Mireau parades in pristine costume through the dank and filthy trenches, barking the empty refrain “ready to kill more Germans?” at traumatized soldiers. He informs Col. Dax (played with heart by Kirk Douglas) of the grotesque mission, who must in turn order his men to engage an attack he knows full well to be the General’s vanity project. The rest of the film follows the botched attack and the subsequent court-martial, convened under Mireau’s order and against Dax’s desperate resistance, that tries three soldiers for cowardice in the face of the enemy, punishable by execution.
Speaking on the Second World War, philosopher Theodor Adorno observed: “men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen…The war is really phoney, but with a phoneyness more horrifying than all the horrors.” Paths of Glory is saturated with the sense that the world’s most real and brutal battles are also performances in a “monster” production from which no one is sufficiently distanced to see clearly. Kubrick fills the film with imagery of theater and spectacle, and his signature withdrawing tracking shots accentuate the feeling of total enclosure: the further he pulls back, the more it is confirmed that there is no outside to this world and that everything participates in its relentless production and propagation.
The first of his antiwar trilogy—followed by Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987)—Paths of Glory is consistent with Kubrick’s nearly ubiquitous meditation on the arbitrariness and absurdity of authority, especially masculine authority. The legitimacy of both Mireau’s and Dax’s authority is fraudulent, but only the former is taken in by his own performance. Mireau is so tantalized by the promise of stars and status as to be blind to everything around him: in the face of a babbling soldier he claims there is “no such thing” as shell-shock, and as he bellows the merits of the mission to the Anthill, he doesn’t notice a man walk past him without a nose. By contrast Col. Dax clearly perceives the inanity of the mission, but he would rather lead his troops to death than be taken off the regiment and away from “his” men (unlike Mireau’s, Dax’s use of the possessive rings of real solidarity, rather than ownership). When Dax outlines the absurd attack for his troops, the perversity of their situation is crystalized in Dax’s exchange with a soldier who asks what the weather will be like in the morning. “Too good,” Dax replies, “the forecast is for sun all day.” One of the small perversities of war is learning to hope for rain and fog. The sun becomes a searchlight.
In the famous battle scene, Kubrick’s camera moves slowly across the trenches keeping pace with the flailing soldiers. The technique suggests a strange symbiosis between characters and camera: it is not clear whether the soldiers’ forward march drives the camera back, or the camera’s withdrawal compels the them forward to enemy lines. Either way, there is no freedom, these are only two sides of a single compulsion. And there is certainly no path of glory. In Kubrick’s vision, there is no path out at all.
PhD Candidate in Philosophy
University of Chicago