In the last few years, there’s been a lot of new World War I themed movies. I haven’t seen the most recent one yet (1917). But I will. I have to admit I’m finally getting a bit sick of WWI movies. In the last ten years or so, since I became fascinated with this war, I’ve watched dozens and dozens of movies, documentaries, and news clips. Lots of old movies and new ones. Similar to World War I Memorials, Museums, and Exhibits I’ve visited, the movies also tend to glorify the war, at least in some capacity. Even if they show the horrors of the trenches and the senseless deaths in senseless battles, there still tends to be an underlying message of glory whether it’s a hero, a heroic act or the war itself. The ends justify the means sort of thing often comes through. The movies may exemplify the stupidity of a general or a battle, but they don’t show the stupidity of the whole damn war!
So imagine my surprise when years ago, I found an old movie from the video store (remember those?) called Paths of Glory (B&W 1957) with Kirk Douglas, and it blew me away. Here was a true antiwar film that was riveting, dramatic, with quality acting, and all the other things that go into a good movie. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick. At the time, I remembered some of the other Kubrick’s films I’d seen such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, so I was a little confused as to what Paths of Glory would be. I didn’t know what to expect.
Here’s a very quick summary. Kirk Douglas plays a French Colonel, Colonel Dax, who is required to plan an impossible attack against the Germans, all to further the career of an ambitious General. Colonel Dax is against it, but in the end he follows orders. As mentioned, it was impossible, so when the infantry fail in their mission, the General, to cover his blunder in ordering the offensive in the first place, decides to blame the soldiers. He wants to court martial 100 men for cowardice, but then he drops it to three (1 from each company). The price for cowardice is the firing squad. Colonel Dax, a defense lawyer in civilian life, defends the men during the court martial.
Here’s a blurb from Criterion.com about the movie.
“This haunting, exquisitely photographed dissection of the military machine in all its absurdity and capacity for dehumanization (a theme Kubrick would continue to explore throughout his career) is assembled with its legendary director’s customary precision, from its tense trench warfare sequences to its gripping courtroom climax to its ravaging final scene.”
The movie is based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel which is based loosely on an actual event during the war. The move was banned in France until 1975. And at the time of its release, it was also banned at U.S. military bases. You know it’s good when it’s banned. If you haven’t seen it’s worth watching.