“Paths of Glory” was released in 1957 and directed by the filmmaking legend Stanley Kubrick. It starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax and is considered by many critics to be one of the best war films ever made.
The story takes place in World War I, when a self-righteous French military general orders a battalion under the command of Col. Dax (Douglas) to attack the German “Ant Hill” in an impossible suicide mission. After the attack fails, 3 soldiers under Dax’s command are court martialed as scapegoats and Dax must defend them in trial to prevent their demise by the very nation they fought to protect.
What makes this film so effective is its length. At just under 90 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace and never gives the audience a moment to breathe. The first half is a thrilling war film with one of the best battle scenes in movie history, while the second half is a timeless exploration of morality. The movie explores ideas such as the mistreatment of soldiers/veterans, the hypocrisy in war, and the delusions that accompany great power. “Paths of Glory” is somehow more exciting when it shifts into the compelling courtroom drama as you pray for these 3 innocent men to make it out alive, even though it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be shown mercy.
This is an extremely powerful, moving film that doesn’t fall into the traps of other movies of its era. Soldiers aren’t presented as cartoonish strongmen without any emotions. All the characters are depthful and multi-dimensional. They fear for their lives, question their loyalties, and have insecurities. The psychological horrors of war are at the center of the film’s narrative, and they’re treated with immense respect.
Kirk Douglas gave what is, in my opinion, the best performance of his career in this film. Much of his acting is subtle, but you can see the frustration in his eyes as this man who knows what his government is doing is immoral and repugnant, but also knows that he’s powerless to stop it. When he finally explodes at one of the generals toward the end of the film, it’s so satisfying to see Dax release his hidden rage and frustrations. A lesser actor may have overplayed the role and made Dax into some unrealistically emotional hero, but Douglas knew exactly when to hold back or release his character’s emotions.
Another terrific aspect of “Paths of Glory” is how gorgeously shot it is (which is unsurprising coming from Stanley Kubrick). The scenes in the trenches are mostly done in long takes with dynamic camera movement and symmetry. The battle at the Ant Hill is particularly enthralling, as it contains long stretches of the camera panning from right to left, following the soldiers as they try to progress through the German lines. The practical explosions also add to the grittiness and realism of the battle sequences.
“Paths of Glory” is breathtaking in both its visuals and its themes. This is a thoroughly engaging film that still holds up despite being released 65 years ago, due to its flawless pacing, timeless story, technical achievements, and deeply human performances. While this film is no “Dr. Strangelove,” it’s certainly a great movie that’s among the very best of Kubrick’s filmography.