Kubrick directs his first big-budget feature, Paths of Glory, with grace and his signature phlegmatic style of shot-succession. It stars Kirk Douglass Col. Dax, a young leader whose occupation as a crime lawyer shines through his personality, before he even has to take the stand. Although Douglass is known by some as a vanity actor, I get the feeling that after he thought he could push young Kubrick around in ‘Spartacus’, as the producer, now as an actor he found his ‘rank’. He gives a strong, constrained performance, as the man who tries very hard to be the mirror of the General’s immorality, and of the idea of war entirely.
Col. Dax leads the units in the trenches many yards back from the ant hill, a rather funny name to be used in such seriousness by higher-ups. But when he is ordered by his higher-command, Gen. Mireau, to raid up towards Ant Hill, which even then they could barely hold from a distance, Col. Dax is forced into this act of wrong futility. He obeys orders, and the result is half the men charging and being blown to pieces, in a very effective tracking shot concerned only with the frame of the charging soldiers. The other half of the soldiers don’t charge at all; this cowardice, as Gen. Mireau calls it, who by now we can see is a soulless man whose been in Wars far too long, is put into military court. Gen. Mireau demands execution of his own French troops for their cowardice; beginning with a request of one-hundred, it ends with the selection of one from each regiment, a total of three. The rest of the film concerns itself with the morality of this, and the desperation of Col. Dax for a way to save the soldiers from a pointless execution.
We know once the court hearing is adjourned that the soldiers are going to die; it is a transparent slight in the film that the one-position opinion of Col. Dax is so absolute, as to mimicking the same absoluteness of the General. The military is too attached to cowardice, and sending a signal, more so to the public’s approval than the soldiers, about how things are run. At this end, the rest of the movie seems pointless, yet the ruminations of Col. Dax on the nature of war are enticing; he stands up to higher-ups and even when they don’t always catch it, we do: he plays word-games on the bluntness of the Generals when it comes to death and rightness, constantly.
Paths of Glory is a unique war film, expected from the anti-war director Stanley Kubrick. He approaches the story with economical methods of narrative, from the perspectives of all parties involved, including in the cellar with the soon to be executed soldiers. Stark, riveting, and unnerving, Paths of Glory strikes rebellion in the gut from the comfort of a chair.