- User Rating: Excellent
Pros:Battle scenes, black & white cinematography, Kubrick's direction
The Bottom Line: A powerful film about the horrors of war and the corruption of the military.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
The year is 1916. World War One has been going on for two years now. The initially strong German advance has been halted and now turned into a stalemate. Much of France has been transformed into miles of trenches, that area now known as the Western Front. Any attempts to break out of the stalemate leads to mass slaughter. Stanley Kubrick's anti-war classic details one such attempt.
Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has been ordered by his superior, General Mireau (George Macready) to take a heavily fortified German position known as the Ant Hill. General Mireau knows that the assault is likely to be unsuccessful (he off-handedly discusses with Dax the high level of casualties expected), but he has been offered a promotion by his senile superior officer, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).
The assault on the ant hill leads to predictably disastrous results. Humiliated and furious at the loss of his promotion, General Mireau orders three men to be chosen at random, tried, and executed for cowardice. It's up to Dax to defend the soldiers at the inquest.
Kubrick effectively makes us feel contempt for those in authority who abuse their power. Mireau, not satisfied with ordering a failed assault, tries further to cover up his blunder by executing three men whom he knows are innocent. General Broulard knows perfectly well that Mireau is abusing his power, but is not willing to stop him because "...a little execution is good for the morale of the men." I wonder how the men's morale is going to hold up if they have no respect for their superior officers? Casting Adolphe Menjou in this role was inspired, knowing the finger pointing he did before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
This is a film that really made me feel angry towards the abuse of power that happens in the military. Executions did happen during the Great War. You could be heroic in previous battles yet, because you were shell-shocked, be executed for cowardice in another. I was reading a while back on a story of a man who, because he came back from leave to the front, was arrested and shot on the grounds of deserting. This film made me glad that I've never been in a war.
We feel the anger of the soldiers as they stand trial for false charges. Their verdict has been preordained. We feel their helplessness as they wait in their cell for their execution the following morning. At one point, one officer expresses envy for a cockroach in the corner because tomorrow, "he'll be alive and I'll be dead."
One quote for me, sums up the entire movie. It was in the scene where General Mireau was visiting Colonel Dax in the trenches. Dax, expressing skepticism at the assault Mireau has planned, repeats something one of his officers said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." This line resonates with us throughout the movie.
One flaw I found with the film is that the acting isn't as great as it could have been. George Macready tends to overemote more than he should. While I don't doubt that generals like him existed, Macready makes his character into a caricature. Kirk Douglas was competent, but not spectacular as Colonel Dax. Douglas was mainly there for his star power.
Kubrick's depiction of life in the trenches and the battles across no-man's land is harsh and unglamorous in its realism. These scenes seem to have been lifted off photographs and old news reels. They compare favourably with similarly gritty scenes in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan".
I would recommend "Paths of Glory" for anyone who likes anti-war films and Stanley Kubrick.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older