Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, the Abuse of Power, and the Inevitable Absurdity of War

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.

-Thomas Grey, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,1751

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is often celebrated as the director’s first true masterwork.  Adapting a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick’s film contemplates power struggles, justice, and the wastefulness of wart.  The crux of the story involves three French soldiers who are court-martialed for cowardice after retreating from an impossible attack, but Kubrick’s story is not a mere anti-war film.  The trite idea that “war is bad” is taken as a given, and augmented by multiple impressive cinematic and storytelling techniques into an even more powerful statement:  there is an utter absurdity to war, one that incentivizes an habitual abuse of power and a routine miscarriage of justice.

Classifying Paths of Glory as an “anti-war” film isn’t technically wrong, but it would be like saying 2001: A Space Odyssey is about space travel.  Kubrick moves beyond simple statements and instead seeks to exploit war as a dramatic entity.  He sees the arena of war as a unique way to contrast the desires of the individual with society’s solid framework of the “accepted” value.  Simultaneously, war accelerates and heightens the drama, as life and death hang in the balance.  On this structure, Kubrick builds a cinematic treatise on the fallibility power structures, and all the values that a man is prepared to sacrifice to climb the ladder.

One of the more obvious techniques Kubrick employs in Paths of Glory to indicate ideological struggle is a kind of mental chess match that occurs between two or more people.  At the beginning of such scenes, there is clear disagreement between the characters, and at the end one of the characters has cajoled or convinced the other to come around to his way of thinking. Throughout the film, there are isolated moments when two (or three) characters enter the scene, and one leaves victorious.

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The first “chess match”, this one between the two Generals.  Note the opulence of the palace, and the continuous presence of alcohol as a symbol of corruption.

The first of these scenes dramatizes the two generals discussing the need for taking “The Anthill”, a paltry piece of land which is characterized as small and unimportant by its very name.  Already the absurdity of wartime is front-and-center, as General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) convinces General Mireau (George Macready) that by taking The Anthill, he will advance in rank.  Though Mireau initially dismisses the idea as ludicrous, his thirst for advancement gets the better of him.  From this point forward, he is the clear villain of the story.

Mireau’s first meeting with Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) follows a similar dramatic structure.  He first explains the assault on The Anthill and Dax balks at Mireau’s casual death calculus.  The two butt heads, with Dax volleying some key witticisms before Mireau pulls out a trump card.  He claims that Dax has been working too hard and should be relieved of his duty for the immediate future.  Loathe to abandon his men to the command of another, Dax relents and agrees to the suicidal assault.

Once that assault fails, we’re treated to another succession of such “chess matches”.  First, there is the macabre haggling between Dax, Mireau, and Broulard about how many men should be tried for cowardice and placed in front of a firing squad.  This ends in a stalemate, as no one is particularly happy about killing three men.  It’s too few for Mireau and too many for Dax; Broulard simply seems pleased that a compromise has been reached.  The trial itself could be considered another of these matches, though the railroading is obvious, robbing the sequence of any semblance of fairness (more on that later).

The last of these strategic battles occurs after Dax learns of Mireau’s order to fire the artillery on his own troops and takes his case before General Broulard.  The scene in the library between Dax and Broulard is charged with energy, as Broulard darts through the dialogue in an almost sing-song fashion.  He has a casualness with the way he talks about the deaths of Dax’s men, and the execution set to take place tomorrow.  He’s comfortable throughout the scene, and always in control.

Except he’s not.

We know the silver bullet that Dax holds – in Mireau’s fury over the failing attack, he ordered Captain Rousseau to fire on his own position, a much greater crime than trumped-up cowardice.  If you watch the scene with Dax’s intentions in mind, it is clear that he is just toying with Broulard.  Dax goes so far as to open the door for Broulard, before casually mentioning Mireau’s absurd order.  This earns an abrupt slam from the general.  Then, turning back into the room, Dax provides sworn affidavits from everyone involved, finally winning the day.

Keeping in line with the general absurdity of the narrative and the miscarriage of justice found throughout Paths of Glory, the execution of the three men continues unabated the next morning, despite Broulard’s knowledge of Mireau’s crimes.  It is only later revealed that the general believed that Dax was manipulating the events for his own personal gain that he realizes that Dax actually cared about the lives of his men.

The strategic and ideological conflicts in Path of Glory also bookend the film musically, with an astounding parallelism.  The opening credits run on top of military drums that practically drown out La Marseilles, the French national anthem.  There is a sense of national pride here, but the military march-like percussive elements obscure and alter the mood of the song.  This isn’t a pure battle of ideologies, like when Victor Laszlo champions the anthem in Casablanca against the Germans. This is a damaged, perverted version, suggesting to the audience that the ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité, are negotiable in deference to the true goal:  military victory.

At the other end of the film, we see the exact same pattern, but with the German folk song, The Faithful Hussar, which is also the song sung by the German woman at the end (which we will discuss in full later).  For now, it is simply worth recognizing that the two songs, which should be cast as opposites, instead are arranged into a sameness.  One is French, one German; one is an anthem, one a folk song; one decidedly pro-war, and one anti-war.  And yet, Kubrick’s composer Gerald Fried arranges them both similarly:  drowned out by the marching sounds of battle.  When the film opens with this quizzical statement about the dangers of militarism, and closes with a suggestion that even the specific side you’re on matters very little, where is the audience to look for hope?

Another instance of parallelism offers some respite from the drudgery in the character of Colonel Dax.  He is contrasted by General Mireau.  The cinematographic characterization of these two characters is accomplished with parallel long tracking shots through the trenches, innovative camerawork for the time.  For Mireau, the camera retreats as the general skirts through the trenches, always ducking and dodging for fear of soiling his clean uniform.  He stops three times to blather absurd small talk at his troops, asking them if they’re ready to kill more Germans.  There is strong foreshadowing, as Mireau speaks to two of the men that will be on trial for their lives later in the film.  He would have spoken to the third, but was distracted by shell-shocked soldier who must be sent away, lest he poison the morale of the other troops.

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Mireau asks Paris whether he is, “ready to kill more Germans”, as the snake Roget occupies the middle of the screen in the background, explosions punctuating the absurdity.

Through this astounding tracking shot, Mireau’s hollow words of bravery and heroism are punctuated by explosions and gunfire and Mireau is often the only man to duck.  Sometimes wounded men are carried through the foreground, interrupting Mireau’s bromides.  By the time this sequence has ended, Kubrick has visually taught the audience all that we need to know about Mireau:  he is a cocksure hypocrite, dismissive of the realities that his men face every day and intent on exploiting their deaths for his own gains.

Colonel Dax gets a similar tracking shot through the trenches prior to the assault on the Anthill.  Here, the shots alternate between POV shots from Dax and the same long tracking shots we saw with Mireau.  With Mireau, the camera was almost always focused on him, as he draws the attention of the men and the cameras selfishly and for his own foul intentions.  By contrast, Dax’s march through the trenches is focused away from him, towards the faces of the men that he needs to lead into battle.  It is fantastic characterization, accomplished through contrasting camera techniques.  Finally, where Mireau’s stroll through the trench was chatty and inconsequential, Dax’s is taciturn and purposeful.  When the bombs explode and rain dirt on everyone, Dax is the lone man not to flinch.  In a short two minutes, Kubrick again teaches us everything we need to know about Dax, and just how different he is from Mireau.

There are also parallels in the abuses of power by General Mireau and Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris).  Kubrick shows us here that the abuse of power occurs at all levels of command, and that justice is indiscriminate, as neither Mireau nor Roget really get their just desserts.

Both men’s arcs begin with a transgression.  For Mireau it is the decision to order the artillery to fire on his own men, and for Roget it is when he kills Lejuene during the recon mission.  Both men are also drinking alcohol shortly before these acts, and alcohol in general seems reserved for the higher-ups in command, and may serve as a symbol of opulence and corruption throughout the film.

Each man’s deed is noticed by an underling, and then each man attempts to cover it up.  Mireau is a bumbling fool here, as there are many witnesses to his order, but the main one is the artillery commander Captain Rousseau.  The only witness to Roget’s crime is the other man that was out on the patrol with him, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker).  Both Mireau and Roget browbeat the witnesses into silence, claiming that their ranks make them untouchable.  But this is not enough.  To protect himself, Mireau discredits Rousseau in front of Broulard and suggests that the man be sent away.  Of course, Roget’s cowardly solution is much more atrocious; as the lieutenant of his company, he gets to choose the man to be tried for cowardice.  He choice of Paris is a transparent and craven attempt to save his own skin.

Paris attempts to plead his case to Dax, but at this point it doesn’t matter.  Similarly, when Rousseau finally gets to reveal to Dax what happened during the attack, though it seems like Dax is going to effect the salvation of the men after his discussion with General Broulard, nothing really comes of it.  We’re aware that the protestations should matter, but they simply don’t.  The direct parallels don’t extend much further, as from this point the fates of the two knowledgeable men diverge:  Paris dies, and Captain Rousseau continues with his position.

These parallel abuses of power signify a major theme of Paths of Glory.  During war, it is frightening how easily incentives can be perverted and how absurd the choices can become.  Here, a General decides that ascending in rank is more important that the lives of his men, and when his ambition is thwarted he is prepared to punish indiscriminately.  This is a man with extreme control and power over others, and so the damage he can do is practically unimaginable.  At the other end of the spectrum is a drunken coward who somehow manages to rise to the rank of lieutenant.  Even this modicum of power is enough to lord over an underling in an effort to excuse an unforgivable mistake.  Paths of Glory again shows not simply that “War is Hell”, but that it creates an environment where perverse incentives and power can be exploited.

Injustice is the centerpiece of Paths of Glory.  The most pristine example involves the three men put on trial for cowardice.  From beginning to end, their actions have no practical effect on the judgment passed on them.  They are not seen during the attack, they are chosen for the trial off-screen, and are all chosen for different unfair reasons.  Their trial is a railroading, evident from beginning to end and perfectly communicated by Kubrick’s cinematic language during the sequence.  And there are final absurdities in the jail scenes and the execution sequence, making clear the ridiculousness of war.

The three men tried for cowardice, one from each company, are chosen off-screen and for three different unjust reasons.  As mentioned before, Paris has been chosen by Roget in an effort to silence him, so there is a revenge factor to this choice.  Private Ferol is chosen because he was deemed, “a social undesirable” by his commander.  Private Arnaud’s company drew lots, and he was the unfortunate loser.  These are three different methods of choosing a scapegoat for the entire company, and each of them finds a new way to be unfair and illogical.  Paris is the victim of a personal vendetta, Ferol is simply disliked, and Arnaud is unlucky.  None of these things have anything to do with the bravery or cowardice of the individual men.

None of these characters were shown during the assault on The Anthill, but it is revealed during the trial that Ferol and Arnaud participated in the attack, and Paris was knocked out in the opening moments.  This plot element is an example of a director making the most out of a poor situation, as the three men were initially supposed to be shown during the charge, in an effort to establish their bravery.  But, Timothy Carey, who played Ferol, was a notoriously difficult actor and had to be fired before Kubrick shot the battle sequences.  As a result, instead of the audience reacting to the unfairness of these three brave men being tried for cowardice, we react to the senseless randomness of it all, as we don’t even get to see them during the battle.

The injustice reaches an absolute peak during the trial of these three men, with Dax acting as their lawyer.  The trial is an absolute railroading, indicated throughout by the cinematic language of Kubrick.  The very setting of the trial is important, as the opulence of the palace directly contrasts the dingy trenches and dark prison, and isolates the men.  The sprawling floor is checkered like a chess board, suggesting that this is to be the ultimate battle of wits between Dax and Mireau.  But key details indicate that this is not to be a fair fight.  The defendants sit on small, rickety chairs while Mireau lay languid on a fancy sofa.  The camera looks down on the defendants as they give their testimonies, and up on the judge as he questions them.  This is despite the fact that the defendants stand while the judge sits.  This visual reversal conveys the power structure at work here, and suggests that the defendants have no chance.

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The large, pristine palace dwarfs the defendants, who march along a chessboard and sit in rickety chairs.

Similarly, when the prosecutor walks around the defendants asking questions, he ducks in and out of shadows.  There is no purity or innocence associated with this man, he is a pawn of the higher-ups.  This interpretation is confirmed in other shots where the heads of the judges block out the prosecutor.  We do not see the judges in this way when Dax talks, nor when the defendants are giving their testimonies.  It appears as though the judges are allied with the prosecutor, ganging up on the defendants to effect their execution.

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This shot looks down on the three defendants, from a strange angle that is above the heads of the judges.  The cinematography itself judges the men guilty already.

Dax has his moments, but his attempts to introduce relevant evidence into the case is rebuffed at every opportunity.  The fix is in, and Kubrick concludes this all in a single, simple choice at the end of the sequence.  One of the most obvious stylistic techniques used throughout Paths of Glory is the abrupt cut as a means for transitioning between different scenes.  But at the end of the trial, Kubrick subverts our expectation by employing a fade out / fade in as transition, and picks up the other end by matter-of-factly informing us that the three men have been condemned to death.  By placing the “judgment” in between FADE OUT and FADE IN, Kubrick communicates the inevitability of the decision.

The final, horrible absurdity follows.  In the prison the night before the execution, the three men argue about religion, worry that the last meal might be poisoned, and contemplate the unfairness of everything, to no avail.  The priest is utterly impotent, and his preaching only angers Arnaud.  As he fights with Paris, he is knocked to the ground and gets a fractured skull.  Thus, in the final march towards the firing squad, Arnaud is tied to a stretcher and must be awoken just before he is killed.  Meanwhile, Ferol screams for justice from God or anyone else, and Paris is courageous and silent in the face of death, even to the point of refusing the blindfold offered by his nemesis Roget.  The sequence is bare, unflinching, and brutal.  One quick-cut later, and Mireau and Broulard are munching croissants and discussing the glorious way the men died.  It is sickening, and utterly ridiculous.

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We can’t let Arnaud die of a head wound!  He has to be shot to death!

Kubrick’s brilliance in Paths of Glory lay in his ability to leverage parallelism in character, cinematography, power abuse, and even music to convey an utter miscarriage of justice and the inherent absurdity of war.  There’s no glorification of battle, no fanfare, and no obvious potshots at the enemy.  During the battle, only Dax is recognizable, and we see no German soldiers in the whole film.  In fact, there is only a single German in Paths of Glory, the woman who sings in the beautiful closing sequence.  The Faithful Hussar, sung by Susanne Christian, who would later marry the director, collects and concretizes all these ideas and more in one of the most stirring sequences in cinematic history:

“The Faithful Hussar”, translated from German (full lyrics, but the girl sings a slightly different version of the song)
(Bold is repeated)

A faithful soldier, without fear,
He loved his girl for one whole year,
For one whole year and longer yet,
His love for her, he’d ne’er forget.

And when the youth received the news,
That his dear love, her life may lose,
He left his place and all he had,
To see his love, went this young lad…

Oh Mother, bring forth a light,
My darling dies, I do not see,
That was indeed a faithful hussar,
He loves his girl a whole year.

A faithful soldier, without fear,
He loved his girl for one whole year,
For one whole year and longer yet,
His love for her, he’d ne’er forget.

Kubrick ends the film with this lyrical masterstroke, impressive even for him.  There is rampant repetition – the ending couplets are repeated, and we hear only three unique verses of the popular folk song:  1-2-3-1.  There is also a profound sense of loss and injustice.  As the men begin to recognize the song and hum along, they realize that the sadness and beauty that the “enemy” girl is singing rings all too true.  They begin to understand that they will likely never see those waiting at home for them, and that they will die in this absurd war over barren and worthless plots of land.  For Kubrick, the utter absurdity of war is fully realized by placing the most poignant thematic statement of the film in the tongue of the enemy.  As the men hum along in an understanding that such beauty is not meant for them any longer, Dax is told that the company is schedule to go back to the front, and the film ends.

Paths of Glory is much more than an anti-war film.  Such banality is beyond Kubrick.  The director goes further, describing how war creates an environment where power, class, command, and irrationality are allowed to pervert any sense of justice or morality.  In Kubrick’s first true masterpiece, the absurdity of war completely poisons whatever justice or beauty exists in the realm of humanity, and offers no respite.

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