Paths of Glory (1957)

We’ve been on a spate of tributes all this month. First, it was a farewell for Dev Anand, the man who embodied ‘leading man’ for so many Indians across generations. Then, there were birthdays – for the ‘hunkiest of them all’, Dharmendra, and then for one of Hindi cinema’s greatest thespians, Dilip Kumar. Somewhere amidst all those tributes, another great birthday got left out. Kirk Douglas turned 95 on December 9, 2011. So, here’s wishing Mr Douglas a (rather belated) happy birthday, and here’s looking at one of his best-known films.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Paths of Glory is set in France, in 1916. World War I, of course, is raging. The French armies have pushed back the Germans at the Marne, and there seems to be a stalemate. Against this backdrop, there’s an important, but discreet, private meeting between General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Paul Mireau (George Macready). Orders have trickled down from the powers that be: a certain section of the front – known as the ‘Ant Hill’ – must be wrested back from the German armies that currently hold it.

General Mireau says it’s out of the question. His division has been decimated to the point where they’re in no position to hold the Ant Hill, let alone take it. But Broulard insists; they have no option. He also dangles a carrot: get the Ant Hill, and Mireau will be promoted. Another star, a place in the prestigious 12th Corps.

So Mireau goes off on a tour of the trenches held by the regiment that will be attacking the Ant Hill. The regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), when General Mireau breaks the news to him, is stunned. It will be pure suicide, he knows. The Germans are too deeply entrenched and command the Ant Hill too well.

General Mireau doesn’t listen. These are soldiers, he says. Men. Patriots. If one dies, if ten die, if a hundred die, a thousand – they are dying for the honour and glory of their country. That is their job, their duty.

Dax’s regiment, ordered to move out of its trenches in three successive waves, will set out at dawn. Reinforcements will probably arrive by about sunset, so Dax’s regiment will have to hold the Ant Hill (if they can capture it in the first place) from dawn to dusk.
All Dax’s appeals, whether based on rationale or simple humanity – you can’t send men out to a sure death – fail. General Mireau has a mandate: the Ant Hill must be won.

As expected, it is a long night for Dax and his men. But morning comes, and Dax – as per orders – leads his men out, swarming over the trenches, past the barbed wire that marks the French line, out into no man’s land. There’s mud, water, blood, the pounding of guns raining shell down on the men. General Mireau (who, as Dax has been told, will be ‘personally observing the attack’) is safely ensconced in a bunker far away, with a nice warming bottle of cognac and a pair of binoculars to watch the action.

It is from this vantage point that Mireau sees that there are still crowds of French soldiers in their own trenches. They’re not moving out. Not going into battle. Cowards, all.
Mireau gets so angry that he immediately has a wireless message sent to the captain in charge of the battery on a nearby hill, to fire at the trenches. “On our own men?” the captain asks in disbelief. Yes, bellows the general. And repeats it on the phone when the captain refuses to accept that the general could have given such an order.

Mireau eventually has to give up, because the captain refuses to fire on French troops without receiving a written order to this effect.

In the meantime, on the ground, a large part of Dax’s regiment is still – as Mireau had seen – in its own trenches. That’s because their comrades, the ones who were in the first assault, have already been mostly killed or wounded. Dax, who’s managed to get back into the trench, tries to lead another assault up, but is pushed back. The shellfire above the trenches makes it impossible to even try to climb out.

So, at the end of the day, the Ant Hill remains with the Germans. And an enraged General Mireau decides that the only way to wash away this ‘taint on the French army’ is to make an example. He begins by suggesting to General Broulard that ten men from each company of Dax’s regiment should be court-martialled and executed.

Dax tries to reason with him. When that doesn’t succeed, Dax puts forward his own name – after all, as commanding officer of the regiment, Dax is the one most responsible for any cowardice that his regiment might have exhibited.
Nothing Dax says is heard; but Mireau finally makes a concession: okay, not ten men each, just one man each. Dax also manages to corner Mireau into letting him, Dax, be the counsel for the defence for the three men on trial.

So three men find themselves picked out. Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker) is chosen by his officer, because Paris knows the shameful truth about the lieutenant’s own shortcomings…

Private Ferole (Timothy Carey) is picked because he’s a ‘social disgrace’.

Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is picked – well, because he and his colleagues cast lots and he drew the short straw.

And so the court martial begins, just hours after Dax has been told it’s to be held.

No, this isn’t a story of whether or not Dax will be able to save his men from being victimised by Mireau. It isn’t a courtroom drama. It is not even, as so many people call it, one of the ‘best war films ever made’: the war, with its guns and trenches and death, disappears pretty much into the background after that suicidal assault on the Ant Hill. Instead, there’s General Broulard, hosting a dinner and dance on the night of the court martial.
There’s General Mireau, looking as if he doesn’t have a thing on his conscience, enjoying the evening. There’s music and laughter and relaxed conversation… and three innocent men facing death.

Yes, Paths of Glory is set against the backdrop of war, but (like High Noon) this is another story that could have been played out in a setting of any conflict: the corporate world, for example. Or gang wars on the streets. It is, all said and done, a story of human emotions: ambition, greed, hypocrisy, fear (of death, of disgrace, and so much more) – and, perhaps, of hope too.

And, like High Noon, this is a story that is universal. To hide his own inadequacies, a powerful and ambitious man picks a scapegoat – and ruthlessly sets out to ensure that, come what may, his will will prevail. Taking on the task of thwarting this tyrant is a man who’s risking his career, possibly even his own life, because he cannot see the gross injustice that seems certain to prevail.

Caught between the two, their lives hanging in the balance, are the three condemned men. Men who are powerless; who must wait around and see what happens. Men who know they may not have another 24 hours to live.

What I liked about this film:

For me a good film (or a good book, for that matter) is one that either makes me think, or arouses a lot of emotion in me – or both. I watched most of Paths of Glory simmering with anger, because the story unfolding onscreen was just so brutally cruel, so unjust. And while that is to a large extent due to the superb acting (of George Macready as General Mireau, in particular) it is Kubrick’s direction that makes that happen.

There is, for instance, the mere fact that Paths of Glory is shot, not in colour – which was common by then – but in black and white. This may have been because of budgetary constraints, but the result fits the theme perfectly: gloomy, dark, so much like actual footage of the Great War.

Another example: a detail that shows just how ambitious Mireau is, how fervently he believes that morale must be kept up. When he visits the trenches to tell Dax about the impending assault on the Ant Hill, Mireau walks through the trenches, stopping after every few turns to talk to one of the soldiers on duty. (In an aside, he explains to the major accompanying him that talking to the soldiers raises their morale). To each soldier, Mireau’s words are the same: “Hullo there, soldier… Ready to kill more Germans?… Are you married, soldier?…” and so on.

Finding himself faced with a shell-shocked soldier who simply, stupidly, repeats the general’s questions back at him, the general’s only reaction is to knock the man unconscious and scream at the sergeant: “Get that baby transferred out of my regiment! I don’t want my brave men contaminated by him!”

And just as Mireau turns a blind eye to reality, so do some of his subordinates. The sycophantic major who accompanies him through the trenches says, “You know, general, I think these tours of yours have an incalculable effect on the morale of these men.”

What can I say? Watch Paths of Glory for yourself. It is an amazing, unforgettable film.

Some trivia:

(As you can see, I’m skipping the ‘What I didn’t like’ section, because I couldn’t think of anything to write there).

Paths of Glory was not allowed to be released in France till 1975, because it was considered – by many military officers in France – to show the French army in a bad light. In Spain, too, Franco’s regime did not allow the film to be released because it portrayed a negative image of the military.

The title of the film is taken from Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Which actually sums up the film perfectly.

30 thoughts on “Paths of Glory (1957)

  1. I was expecting a post from you yesterday, since you post mostly on Thursdays and was glad that it didn’t come, because Ihardly had time yesterday to go through something interesting, which your posts are always are!

    I love anti-war films! I love Kirk Douglas, though i have seen so few movies of his. He was great in Spartacus. Men with good legs, do look good in mini-skirts don’t they? (for e.g.Dharam in Dharam-Veer!) ;-)

    I will be coming back for a better detailed reading afterwards, have to rush to my job. But today it is only for an hour or so!


    • Yes, I’ve seen very few Kirk Douglas films, too – other than Paths of Glory, the only other ones I recall seeing are The Vikings and The Last Sunset. (I have to admit – very shamefacedly – that I haven’t even yet got around to watching Spartacus). But I do like him a lot – fantastic screen presence. He dominates the frame when he’s in it.

      Whenever you get the time to read, do, and tell me what you think. Paths of Glory is a superb film, it stamps itself on your memory.


  2. Was very moved by your review!
    You are completely right, the drama that plays here can have been set anywhere else as well. Human greed for power and glory abounds everywhere not only in the military and not only in France.
    I have personally experienced how one of my ex-boss used to go around just like Gen. Mireau and ‘raise’ the morale of his workers and talk about the noble cause we all were working for, while he used to channel money for his own cause. Just like in this film, many of his subordinates (in the true sense of the word) were fired for his shortcomings.
    And no, there was no Colonel Dax among us, not even me.

    Great review! Makes me want to watch it!


    • Thank you, harvey. I’m glad you liked the review.

      You know, I find films like this or High Noon excellent not just because they are well-acted or well-directed (which both films are), but because they present situations that everybody can identify with. You don’t need to have lived in wartime France or late 19th century frontier America to understand what happens in these films. All you need is to be human.

      Like you, I’ve also seen bosses who’ve gone around with this facade of being the ‘motivating boss’, the ‘leader who leads from the front’ and all that b******t, but who’s actually in it all for what he/she can get. Thankfully, I’ve never come across anybody as awful as the boss you describe.

      But yes, though we’d all like to think we would stand up for justice, how many of us, when it comes to it, can actually summon up the courage to be a Dax?


  3. I love all these yesteryear actors, given the few Kirk Douglas films I have seen I would pick 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — Douglas was absolutely charming in that one. Frankly they do not make films like these anymore, as is obvious from your movie the story was the king in such films unlike today when all you see huge blasts, car chases, special effects and what have you but where is the simple story?


    • Thank you for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recommendation, Shilpi! I really like that story a lot, so I’m pretty sure I’d like the film too. Will certainly look for it.

      I couldn’t agree more with you about all that slick action and special effects dominating film-making these days, and stories mostly taking a back seat. Earlier this year, when The King’s Speech was released in India, my husband and I went to see the film (and liked it a lot). When the show ended and we were leaving the cinema hall, we overheard a man talking into his cellphone and saying, “This was such a weird movie. Nothing happened!”

      Sigh. :-(


      • >“This was such a weird movie. Nothing happened!”
        LOL!! Because of the ridiculousness of it. That too saying it publicly on the mobile.

        I loved The KIng’d Speech too.
        I’ve been watching films recommended by Sharmi and you, and slowly my horizon is expanding not to mention the list of to watch films that’s expanding by the day too. :)


        • and slowly my horizon is expanding

          I feel the same about my movie-watching experiences too. Thanks to this blog – and my determination to improve the standard of movies that I watch (or generally watch!), I must admit I’ve expanded my horizons a lot. If it hadn’t been for Bawa, for example, I’d probably never have reviewed any foreign-language films. And the bulk of this blog would’ve been devoted only to actors and directors whose work I was already familiar with…


  4. Echoing Shilpi here. While I’m not one who goes into morbid nostalgia about the ‘good old days’, I have to wonder where the story went. It’s all style over substance these days. Everywhere. I had to laugh at the comment you overheard (re:The King’s Speech): what can you expect of people whose attention spans are less than that of an addlepated turtle? A movie that depends upon script, plot and dialogues isn’t going to set the cash registers clinking. For that you need enough computer graphics, obscene amounts of money, item numbers with scantily clad heroines (if a Hindi film) and beautiful, beautiful people in beautiful, beautiful clothes!

    I haven’t seen much of Kirk Douglas either, but I prefer him to Douglas Jr. :) Paths of Glory was one of the few Kubrick movies I liked, though. When he started to get avant-garde, he lost me completely.


    • Anu, what amazed me was that this episode – of The King’s Speech – happened after the Oscars, so everybody knew how many awards it had won. Even the Indian press had been full of reviews of the film. I’m wondering why this man came to watch the film in the first place. Didn’t he read a single review? Didn’t he read even one of the dozens of two-line synopses in the newspapers? What was he expecting? King George as a wannabe James Bond?

      On the other hand, I did overhear a number of people praising the film, so all is not lost.

      But it is sad that a film with a good story (and I’m not talking a good adventure/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero story) is so hard to come by these days. My husband took me along to watch Immortals the other day, and it left me with an awful taste in the mouth. Great SFX, pretty people, spectacular CGI… huge holes in the plot – though I suppose that was to be expected, since it was pretty threadbare to begin with.


      • That’s why it pays to be bilingual and have access to Hindi films, too! Hollywood is not interested in stories these days, but you still have the odd Hindi film that actually invests in a plot, dialogues and acting – naturally, that happens only if they have a very low budget! ;D I am sure there must be similarly cash-strapped American/British directors who are forced to make decent films because they cannot afford CGI and SFX. We just have to find them!


        • Interesting observation, bollyviewer – and one I agree with. For close to 15 years, I’d nearly stopped watching new Hindi films, because most of them were just so terribly hackneyed and unbearable – just one round after another of violence, song, innuendo-riddled comedy, more song and dance. Over the past few years, thankfully, things have begun to change. (BTW, thank you for a tip I got over at your blog many months ago: I watched Phans Gaye Re Obama the other day, and enjoyed it a lot!)


  5. To dustedoff and you all,

    A google alert I have for Paths of Glory brought me to this page.
    The film has been an obsession of mine for about five years while I have been working on a documentary about this American classic that is almost unknown to many film lovers despite it’s occasional appearance on TMC and art house screens.
    My film, which includes an introduction by Kirk Douglas, is almost finished and I am currently trying to raise $8,000 on to complete the final phase of production which includes putting Kubrick’s wife on camera, who is the singing girl at the end of the film. If you love cinema and admire this film, this is a call for your help. Visit the project website to learn more about the documentary and view clips from the edit-in-progress. Then, to make a donation, go to:

    There are rewards for certain pledge levels including DVDs of the finished film and screen credit. Please spread the word to other film lovers, colleagues and friends. Even a one dollar pledge makes
    a difference by raising the project’s visibility on Kickstarter and to other prospective donors.

    Thank you,
    David Spodak
    Filmmaker and faculty of Film & Video Dept.
    Columbia College, Chicago


  6. I watched most of Paths of Glory simmering with anger” Me too! :) The scariest part of the film is that I can easily imagine this happening even now. I wonder if the story was set in World War I French army because a World War II Allied Army setting would cause an uproar?

    Offhand, I cannot recall where else Kirk Douglas plays a nicer character! Most of the films I’ve seen him in (and I’ve seen quite a few, including some of his Westerns), he plays characters that are more black/grey than white. Spartacus was good, but would’ve been so much better if I could just get over Spartacus speaking with an American accent!


    • “I wonder if the story was set in World War I French army because a World War II Allied Army setting would cause an uproar?

      There seems to be evidence that the story of Paths of Glory was inspired (at least in part) by a real life incident, which did occur during the First World War, in the French army. Have a look at this:

      This was the first time I’ve seen Kirk Douglas playing such a nice, upright guy, too. (I haven’t seen Spartacus yet). But Shilpi suggests 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which seems to be (from what I’ve read of it over on IMDB) another film I should be getting my hands on very soon. And in which Douglas may be a not-too-bad man either. ;-)


      • I know it is loosely based on an incident in World War I French army, but the film’s take on that incident seems pretty 50s, as do Dax’s arguments. You get the feeling that this is really a proxy for something else – probably the more recently concluded World War II and/or the Korean war. It’s a bit like Yahudi where the Romans’ pronounced antisemitism is clearly a proxy for the Hindu-Muslim tensions in newly divided India.


        • Actually, to me Dax’s arguments seemed the sort that would stand true across time and space – arguments based on sheer logic. Of course in an earlier time, in a staunchly heirarchical organisation like an army where insubordination would be the ultimate crime, some of what he said may have been tantamount to insubordination… today that might be considered humanity, not insubordination. I don’t know; I wonder what reality is like when you’re in an armed force?

          Here’s an interesting sort-of equivalent: back in the mid-1960s, my father (who was in the IPS) had to refuse a request/order from a minister, who wanted Papa to provide the minister’s son and his friends with a jeep while the young men were on a jaunt through Papa’s jurisdiction. Even if Papa had wanted, he couldn’t have complied, because he simply didn’t have an official jeep to provide – the only jeep was already in use, halfway across the state, ferrying a visiting IG on his tour of inspection.

          The result? Papa was punished – by being transferred 11 times, from one part of the state to the other, over the next 10 1/2 months.

          I wonder if that would be accepted today. It was unjust back then, but all Papa did was comply.


        • That sounds horrendous! My father was in Government service too, so I know all about “punishment transfers” and other kinds of harassment. By the 80s/90s there were legal means of fighting against such harassment, and keeping the job, but you had to kiss your career good bye.

          Actually, to me Dax’s arguments seemed the sort that would stand true across time and space – arguments based on sheer logic.” You’d think equal rights and freedom from discrimination is also a logical argument that stands true across time and space, but around the same time as this film was shot/shown, Martin Luther King Jr was fighting racial discrimination in US. And complete equality is still a dream for a lot of people around the globe! I was merely commenting on these ideas appearing in popular culture – for instance, I cannot see this film being made during 1939-45. Not to mention that insubordination is still not tolerated in Army, particularly during war, since it has the potential to break down the command structure.


          • When I mentioned logic being the point of Dax’s arguments, I meant things like when he draws attention to the fact that shellfire was so all-pervasive above the trenches that it was impossible to get out, not a question of cowardice. Or when he points out that one of the three men has actually received – in the past – bravery awards.

            But yes, I agree completely that ‘justice’ and ‘freedom from discrimination’ are still mere words for millions. Even in 1957, it wasn’t smooth sailing for this film, after all – what with France and Spain both stopping it from being released.


  7. This sounds like an interesting movie, I will certainly try and watch it. I have not seen many movies of Kirk Douglas, just Spartacus I think, so this would be a good addition. Michael Douglas, his son, is far more familiar to me, and he acts in some of my favorites..
    Re: Stanley Kubrick, I have seen 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Spartacus, but they were many years ago, and so I need a refresher.
    A really good review, also liked the trivia section.


    • I actually don’t recall having seen any Michael Douglas films, though I’ve seen a few of Catherine Zeta-Jones’s! ;-)

      So which are the Michael Douglas films that you’d list among your favourites, Samir?


      • Michael Douglas movies I would list are Coma, The China Syndrome, Romancing The Stone, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, & Basic Instinct.
        All of these are obviously Hollywood Masala of the late 70’s/80’s/early 90’s, and I suppose he was one of the last few before the computers took over. A great thing for my profession of course, but no so great for a good movie experience :)


        • Thanks. :-) It’s kinda strange that I’ve heard of all these movies (and they used to be shown on TV all the time some years back), but except for Coma, I haven’t actually seen any of them. And Coma, while I understood it perfectly, I saw it so long back that I remember nothing of it, not even who acted in it or its story – all I recall is this scene where a woman runs into a corpse hanging shrouded in plastic sheeting or something…


  8. This is amazing. After High Noon, review of another great favourite of mine Paths of Glory. These are the films I never tire of watching again and again. Though sometimes I feel Paths of Glory could have a happy ending without losing much of its impact. While firing by the death squad as punishment for cowardice in the face of the enemy was quite common in the First World War, the cynicism of the generals in this film, when they negotiate with Kirk Douglas on an acceptable number, is chilling. Some British Generals who were highly glorified during the WW1, were seen in a much less flattering light later, some of their actions considered downright cruel.

    On Kirk Douglas I recall a Western in which trains have just reached that frontier. Kirk Douglas can not believe any moving thing can be more powerful than his horse. He races it against the new machine. Initially the horse is ahead bringing smile on his face, but soon enough inexorably the train overtakes and races on and on. There is bewilderment on the face of Kirk Douglas and realisation the time have changed. I would be grateful if you can refresh my memory and review that film.


    • Your description of that scene from the Kirk Douglas Western sounds interesting… but, as I’ve mentioned in one of the comments above, I haven’t actually seen too many Kirk Douglas films. Only Paths of Glory, The Vikings, and The Last Sunset (which was a Western, but I don’t recall a scene like that in it). Do you remember anything more about the film? Colour? Black and white?


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