A trivia quiz for Memorial Day Weekend: what epic film was Stanley Kubrick’s first directorial project for Kirk Douglas’s company, Bryna Productions? No, it wasn’t Spartacus. Three years earlier, in 1957, Kubrick and Douglas worked together on Paths of Glory. This World War I drama, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, makes a strong case for the insanity of war. That’s why it strikes me as the perfect film to discuss as we approach Memorial Day. (If you haven’t seen it, prepare for spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.)
In 1935, when Cobb first wrote his novel, it had no title. Apparently the publishers held a contest, and the winning entry hearkened back to a line in a famous eighteenth-century poem. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” was written by Englishman Thomas Gray (whom I can assure you is no relation). Reflecting on how all riches and honors are transient, the poet wrote, “The paths of glory lead but the the grave.” It’s a gloomy thought, but one that perfectly exemplifies the mood of Kubrick’s film, which trades on the public’s memory of two very recent World Wars.
The main characters in the film are all French, as hinted by a discordant version of “La Marseillaise” that plays over the opening credits. As the drama begins, high-ranking French officers confer amid the splendor of a captured German palace. Brigadier General Mireau is being asked by his superior to send his war-weary troops on a dangerous mission, without adequate munitions and reinforcements. Mireau resists, but not for long, when it becomes clear that his own advancement in the ranks will be tied to the success of his soldiers in recapturing the “ant-hill” from the Germans. We soon see him strolling through the trenches, expecting to find only men of high morale. When one over-stressed soldier babbles about the possibility of dying, Mireau snaps, “There is no such thing as shellshock.”
The infantrymen’s number-one champion is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), in peacetime a highly-[placed attorney. He bravely speaks up on the men’s behalf, but to no avail. Soon Dax is faced with the biggest trial of his life. Furious that his troops have not succeeded (despite impossible odds) on the battlefield, Mireau demands that hundreds of them be executed for insubordination and cowardice. Ultimately he settles for the prosecution of three men, one selected from each battalion. It is Dax’s unhappy task to defend these three before a military tribunal, at which their lives hang in the balance. I will not go into detail about the film’s powerful climax. Suffice it to say that Mireau is convinced that it’s a boon to troop morale when men see their fellow soldiers die.
The film’s distinctive ending accompanies these troops to a saloon, where they blow off steam with alcohol and noisy camaraderie. When the saloon-keeper brings forth a pretty young German prisoner of war to shyly serenade the men with a sentimental folksong, they respond with catcalls and crude remarks. Then the nostalgia behind the song gets the better of them, and they fall silent. It’s just a matter of time, we know, before they’re back on the field of battle, from which some will never return.
There is, though, at least one happy ending connected with Paths of Glory. That young German actress, Christiane Harlan (billed as Susanne Christian), became Stanley Kubrick’s third wife, and they remained together until his death in 1999. And the film itself was selected in 1992 by the Library of Congress for preservation within the National Film Registry.
I wish a meaningful Memorial Day to you all.