Sir Winston Churchill described Stanley Kubrick’s black and white 1967 anti-war film Paths of Glory as “A highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided working of the military mind”.
“Misguided” is certainly one word to describe the minds of the French Army leaders in WW1 who ordered an attack they knew was impossible on a well-defended German position, and then, to save face when it failed, inflicted on three randomly selected soldiers a farce of a court-martial. After which they had them tied to stakes and shot for cowardice. One of the three had been seriously injured in a fight the night before the firing squad and was unconscious on a stretcher, but woken up by having his cheek pinched so that he could face the hail of bullets. Another accurate word to describe the minds depicted at the top of the French Army chain of command is “psychopathic”.
Of course, it is a tribute to Kubrick’s artistry that his bitingly satirical film makes viewers angry at the futility of war and the insane mind-sets of those who wage it, as it is meant to. But the acting is spot on too, with Adolphe Menjou and George Macready playing the mad masters and Kirk Douglas impressing as the Army Colonel who reluctantly carries out the madness.
The unusual and powerfully emotional finale shows a crude attempt by the Army to dehumanise the German enemy as a young, attractive German girl they have captured is dragged onto a stage in a bar in front of soldiers, before they are told they are going to the front, and humiliated by the pitiless compere, to the jeers of the men. The strategy backfires when the girl is told to sing and sings a German folk song The Faithful Hussar, which tells of a soldier going to war. His love falls ill after a year and dies as he rushes home, a tragedy that chimes with the soldiers, who know the tune and start to sing along, their jeers turning to tears in what is likely to be their last taste of humanity before they perish in the trenches. A German actress and painter styled Susanne Christian, real name Christiane Susanne Harlan, played the part and by the end of the film’s shooting had become director Kubrick’s wife, until his death 41 years later in 1999. Today Christiane Kubrick is a highly successful painter of fresh, colourful still lifes and floral works, much sought after by collectors.
Paths of Glory was released this month on Blu-ray as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series. Special features include an audio commentary version, new video interviews and a booklet featuring Kubrick.