The big, cinematic moment of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory comes when Colonel Dax of the French Army’s 701st regiment – played by Kirk Douglas, an iron-clad star of Hollywood’s golden age – storms through the trenches, his men lined either side, awaiting the order to charge into what everyone knows is a suicide mission.
Kubrick trudges through the trench with Douglas in a series of gripping tracking shots with just eight cuts. Douglas’s Dax, as clearly stated by Kubrick’s masterful work, owns both the trench and the fate of every man there. Seconds later he leads them into No Man’s Land, followed by another masterful tracking shot.
Kubrick would operate an Arriflex camera himself – an early example of those obsessive mobile shots for which Kubrick became so well known – as Douglas clambered across barbed wire and shell holes, leapt into water, and scrambled between dying extras and explosions.
“The main thing was taking Kirk through this obstacle course, this barrage,” said producer James B. Harris about the scene, when interviewed in 2013. “The idea was that Kirk was going to be followed, in a moving shot, through as much action as we could muster before a cut had to be made, after which we would set up to continue. It was cold; it was uncomfortable; it was wet. Everything was tough on Kirk. After he did it the first time, he told Stanley, ‘I’ll give you one more, maybe two, but that’s it. I’m not going to do this forever.’”
More than six decades since its release on Christmas Day 1957, Paths of Glory is the technical forebear of Sam Mendes’ single-take trickery in 1917. Mendes’ film swept the board at the Baftas and picked up three Academy Awards, while Paths of Glory – shamefully overlooked at the time of release – wasn’t nominated for a single Oscar.
But 1917 still hasn’t trumped Kubrick’s masterpiece as the greatest First World War film ever made. Even Winston Churchill hailed it for capturing the atmosphere and military machinations of WWI better than any other film. Yet, Paths of Glory is most powerful off the battlefield. It’s a war film that’s vehemently anti-war – more courtroom melodrama than gung-ho actioner.
Set in 1916, it tells the story of three French soldiers sentenced to death for cowardice when their entire company refuses to follow Dax into No Man’s Land. It’s as much about the perils of middle management and how cheap human lives become within the industry of war.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, considers it to be a huge influence on his series, which had a similar mid-tier perspective. “With middle management as your point of view,” said Simon, speaking for a Criterion Collection documentary. “You can look up and you can look down and therein lies a political crux that he’s able to tell a story about how power routes itself all the way down from the top to the individual.”
The original British poster of Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Canadian writer and WWI veteran Humphrey Cobb, who in turn was inspired by the true story of Souain corporals affair, in which four French corporals were shot for cowardice – an injustice that the French government tried to brush under the carpet for decades afterwards. Cobb’s book had previously been turned into Broadway production, but was unsuccessful due to its complex morality.
Kubrick had read Paths of Glory as a teenager and had the idea to adapt the book during a brief tenure with James B. Harris at MGM, when the pair where searching for a project to develop for the studio. Kubrick secured the rights from Cobb’s widow for just $10,000, but MGM wanted no part of it. “Not on your life,” said Dore Schaly, MGM’s then-head of production. “Enough with war films. They’re death at the box office. Poison.”
While Kubrick moved on to developing Burning Secret – an adaptation of a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig – Harris had pulp novelist Jim Thompson (author of The Killer Inside Me and co-writer of Kubrick’s previous film, The Killing) secretly set to work on a Paths of Glory script. According to John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, with the director’s attention on Burning Secret he lost patience with Paths of Glory and argued with Thompson about the script.
The clandestine development of Paths of Glory ultimately led to Kubrick and Harris being fired from MGM, ahead of a studio shakeup. Burning Secret remained one of Kubrick’s unmade masterpieces, and the script was finally unearthed in 2018.
Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas on the set of Paths of Glory
When Thompson finished his work on the Paths of Glory screenplay, novelist and screenwriter Calder Willingham – who wrote the screenplay for The Graduate – continued to co-write further drafts with Kubrick. (There would eventually be some arguing about who had written what in the Paths of Glory script, and Willingham – who claimed it was 99 per cent his work – turned to the Screen Writers Guild to ensure he was credited with Kubrick and Thompson.)
But no studio would touch the script. “Why would they?” recalled Harris at a Q&A event in 2017. “They wanted to do pictures that glorify war. That’s what the general public get off on, seeing that stuff.”
There were also concerns – quite rightly, as it turned out – that the film would be difficult to distribute in Europe, where the scars from both wars had not fully healed. What Paths of Glory needed was a star name attached.
Kirk Douglas, fresh from playing Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, was impressed with the script, but he’d committed to an 18-month run on Broadway. James Mason, Richard Burton, and Jeff Chandler were considered as candidates to play Dax (though Chandler’s agent though it was too “un-Hollywood”), and Gregory Peck was also interested.
Thankfully, Douglas’s stage production was postponed. But through his formidable agent Ray Stark (future producer of films such as Funny Girl and Annie), Douglas demanded a considerable upside: a $350,000 fee plus a share of the profits, and first-class travel for himself and his family.
Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory
“We jumped at the opportunity,” said Harris. “We felt so strongly about it that we agreed to these harsh terms that he representatives of Kirk Douglas forced on these two kids desperate to get their film made.”
It paid off. With his considerable star muscle, Douglas had the clout to get the film financed with backup of his own company, Bryna Productions. Douglas had preciously agreed a deal for United Artists to distribute his upcoming film and guaranteed money-spinner The Vikings – Douglas’s hyper-masculine, homoerotic punch-up with Tony Curtis – and reportedly threatened to renege on the Vikings deal unless United Artists fronted the money for Paths of Glory. UA conceded and put up almost $1 million. Douglas also nominated the filming locations, the Geiselgasteig Studios and Schleissheim Palace near Munich, where parts of The Vikings were scheduled to be filmed.
In the first draft of the script, Jim Thompson – at the request of Kubrick – had written an upbeat ending in which the soldiers are saved from the firing squad. Kubrick believed it was necessary for the film to be more commercial, even though it would ultimately negate the film’s anti-war message. With Kubrick and Willingham already in Germany working on script revisions, and Douglas and Harris back in the US, Douglas was apparently under the impression that the book’s original ending had been restored, or that it would be changed back, as per messages passed from Harris to Kubrick.
Douglas was furious when he found out the “happy” ending was still in place and threatened to leave the film. After some debate, Kubrick and Harris knew what had to happen: the soldiers had to die. “Kirk basically was a good guy,” said Harris in 2017. “[He] wants the best for the film and he immediately saw that this is the way to be honest, this is the way to tell the story properly. Humphrey Cobb wrote the book that way, let’s do it.”
But there was a problem: United Artists had signed off on the upbeat ending. A major change in script would need the studio’s approval. Harris thought if he sent back the five revised pages, UA wouldn’t approve it, but if he sent the whole script, they’d never bother reading the whole thing. He chanced it and sent the whole script. United Artists never picked up on the changes.
Starring alongside Douglas was Adolphe Menjou as blithering upper-class General Georges Broulard, who sets the story in motion by requesting the regiment takes a German position known as the “Anthill” – not for any meaningful military victory, but for good PR. George Macready played the deviously ambitious Brigadier General Paul Mireau, a man who thinks of dead men as percentages, refuses to believe in shell shock, and even orders his own men fired on when they refuse to charge – because they’re spoiling his chances of career advancement; Lieutenant Roget, a drunk who literally puts his men in the firing line to save his skin, was played by Wayne Morris.
Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel were Ferol, Paris, and Arnaud, the three soldiers selected from the defiant company – supposedly at random, but in fact not randomly at all – to be court martialed and shot to set an example to the rest of the French Army.
Even today, Paths of Glory looks incredible – shot in gorgeous black and white, framed and composed with literal shades of wartime news footage. See the haggard soldiers as Dax storms through the trenches before the big push, somehow both faceless and vividly drawn within the shadows. Dax then disappears into a cloud of dust – the dark, blinding heart of the inhumanity about to come.
Cameraman George Krause is credited as director of photography, but John Baxter’s biography suggests that Kubrick took control of the camera. And it’s an unmistakable foray into the visual language of Kubrickian cinema: the ambitious, torturously-detailed tracking shots; cameras that seem to walk up stairs and twirl around the rooms; and symbolic contrasts in space and atmosphere. See the opulence of the officers’ grand chateau – where Broulard and Mireau plot to send 8,000 men to death for their own political gains – and the tight claustrophobia of the trenches.
There’s always that sense of Kubrick rejecting the formal Hollywood style, instead creating his an individualist, still-influential vision.
Kubrick used 800 extras from the German police, who then had a mandatory three years’ military training. He loaned local farmland which was transformed into No Man’s Land, with trenches dug extra wide to accommodate the moving camera. Kubrick also set up six cameras along the edge of No Man’s Land, each fixed on a designated “dying zone”. Extras were given numbers and instructed to die in their corresponding zone as Douglas charged among them.
But Douglas’s real moment comes later in the film. When Dax volunteers to defend the three doomed soldiers in a farcical court martial (he’s a criminal defence lawyer in civilian life, we learn) Douglas’s performance commands the room. There’s absolute power in each stride and his tempered delivery. “Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race,” he says. “And this is one such occasion.”
The execution itself is almost an anti-climax. Kubrick builds the scene with foreboding, nerve-rattling drums, but the soldiers’ deaths feel like a miserable gut-punch – an appropriately dour and clinical end to the machinations of officers who are more interested in public opinion than the lives of their own men.
There’s more impact in the following scene. After being informed by Dax that Mireau ordered their own men be fired on, Broulard dismisses Mireau – set up as yet another scapegoat – and offers Dax a promotion, because for Boulard it’s all politics. He can’t fathom that Dax really did want to save the men from being executed without having an eye on his own advancement. Dax insults his commanding officer, for which Broulard demands an apology.
Kirk Douglas with the actress Susan Christian, on the set of Paths of Glory
Credit: united artists
“I apologise for not being entirely honest with you,” Dax spits back. “I apologise for not revealing my true feelings, I apologise for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man, and you can go to hell before I apologise to you now or ever again!”
Kirk Douglas is – as seen in that moment – an actor of magnificent stature. When Kubrick was asked how he got such a performance from Douglas, Kubrick said, “A director can’t get anything out of an actor that he doesn’t already have. You can’t start an acting school in the middle of making a film. Kirk is a good actor.”
Not all actors were at their best. Timothy Carey – playing Ferol, one of the executed soldiers – was fired (in the job termination sense) mid-production for being increasingly difficult. He was disruptive during filming, trying to make himself the focus of scenes, and faked his own kidnapping to local police in a bizarre publicity stunt. The rest of his scenes had to be performed by a body double.
For the film’s final scene, Kubrick pitched an idea to James B. Harris: a German girl, held captive by the French, would be paraded in front of soldiers and made to sing, prompting the rowdy soldiers to sing along. When Kubrick suggested Christiane Harlan for the part – Kubrick’s own girlfriend – Harris couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Kubrick, among the purest, most methodical artists to ever step behind a movie camera, wanted to write his girlfriend a part. (They would later marry and stayed together until Kubrick’s death in 1999.)
But Kubrick was right about the scene. It’s a deeply affecting climax – partly for Harlan’s performance, partly for reactions of the soldiers, who were played by untrained extras for more realistic responses. Even Harris got carried away in the moment. “I wound up conducting the men singing,” he recalled.
But her singing soon turns their raucous cheering to tears in a moment of soul-tingling beauty, presumably reminding the soldiers that soon they’ll be dead – and sooner than they realise. As Dax watches them from outside the bar, a sergeant informs him that the men are needed back at the frontline. “Give the men a few minutes more, Sergeant,” he says.
“Boy, he doesn’t win anything,” remarked David Simon about Dax. “He’s one of the most ineffective heroes. I mean, the only he’s able to deliver is a few more minutes to the men before they’re called back in the line.”
When Kubrick and Harris returned to the US, the reaction from United Artists was tepid. “Not a great picture for Christmas,” they said. “But thanks boys.” Concerns about Europe turned out to be correct. The French government put pressure on United Artists to stop it being released in France. It was also dropped from the Berlin Film Festival, banned in Switzerland, and not shown in Spain until the Eighties.
Kubrick had captured something uncomfortably true about false pride and patriotism, and the disposability of human life under self-serving politics. The power of the film is best summed up in Kirk Douglas’s most famous line.
Broulard – who has sent men to die for good PR, executed more to save face, and tried to buy off Dax with a promotion – still fails to see the error of his ways. “What I have I done wrong?” he asks Dax, in all seriousness. “Because you don’t know the answer to that question,” replies Dax. “I pity you.”