Paths of Glory


Paths of Glory
   1) (novel, 1935)
   This angry antiwar novel by combat veteran HUMPHREY COBB takes its title from a line in poet Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) that reads “The paths of glory lead but to the grave. ” The novel was regarded as a masterpiece of antiwar propaganda, attacking, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in 1935, “not the slaughter and stink of the ‘field of honor’ so much as the rotten, ruthless system of militarism that robs men of their most primitive rights. ” Cobb’s hatred of war and the incompetence of the officers who conducted it,Warren Eyster wrote in his afterword to the Avon paperback edition of 1971, made Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front “seem merely sentimental. ” Cobb’s novel was inspired by a dispatch published in the New York Times (July 2, 1934), headlined: “French Acquit 5 Shot for Mutiny in 1915;Widows of Two Win Awards of 7 Cents Each. ” After explaining that “all characters, units, and places mentioned in this book are fictitious,” Cobb refers the reader to his sources, among them Le fusillé by Blanche Maupas, “one of the widows who obtained exoneration of her husband’s memory. ” The novel tells the story of a World War I French regiment, the 181st, serving under Colonel Dax, which is long overdue for rest and recreation after valorous service at the front during World War I, but which is ordered instead to capture a well-fortified position known as “the Pimple” (called the “Ant Hill” in the film), described as “a miniature Gibraltar. ” By mistake, headquarters had been told that the Pimple had been taken, which was not the case. The army commander, who intends to correct this “regrettable error,” speculates that the attack he will order “will be the last one of the war. ” The 181st Regiment had suffered heavy losses in a previous battle and was undermanned with untrained raw recruits. The soldiers attack at dawn on the very day the war ended in November 1918, only to be cut down by heavy machine-gun fire. (STANLEY KUBRICK’s film moves the time frame back to 1916. ) The attack fails. Enraged by what he falsely considers a mass display of cowardice, General Assolant (the name is evocative of his character; Kubrick’s film renames him General Mireau) not only orders the French artillery to fire on their own lines but later demands a scapegoat. Four men, one from each company, are to be court-martialed in a kangaroo court and then shot. Since the soldiers were not cowardly, each company commander is ordered to select a representative scapegoat. One officer, Captain Renouart, refuses to follow orders because, he claims, “There is no member of my company against whom charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy can either be made or found tenable. ” Captain Renouart is able to stand his ground only because his superiors believe he might be related to a powerful politician. Three soldiers from the other companies—Langlois (called Corporal Paris in the film), Didier, and an ex-convict named Férol—are executed after having been selected by lottery. All are victims of an absurd military bureaucracy ruled by petty vanity and petulance, and a system of military justice that is anything but just. Langlois is a key character in the novel. “It takes a fool to make war,” he remarks before the attack, “if you judge by those who are making this one. This attack they’re pushing us into now, it’s just plain murder. ” After the court-martial, Langlois writes to his wife, asking that the case be fully investigated:“ I was drawn by lot. The sergeant-major bungled the drawing, so it had to be made again. It was on the second drawing that I was chosen. . . . Please, please, get a lawyer and have my case investigated. . . . See that my murderers pay the penalty of murder. ” One of the victims, a brave, mortally wounded soldier named Didier, is carried to the firing squad strapped to a stretcher.
   The novel was a Book of the Month Club selection, highly praised by critic Elizabeth Bowen and others, but it was not a great popular success, and it was Cobb’s only published novel. Kubrick’s film adaptation made Colonel Dax the hero—moving him to the foreground and giving him precedence over the victims—and eliminated several of Cobb’s characters, such as Captain Renouart, Lieutenant Paolacci, Captain Etienne (who argues that the condemned men were not cowards, but heroes), and Duval, an idealistic younger soldier who admires Langlois for his medals but is later ordered to serve in the firing squad that shoots him down. The film makes all the officers seem corrupt and all the soldiers seem decent, whereas in Cobb’s novel the corruption is universal and hardly anyone is blameless. Of all of Kubrick’s adaptations, Paths of Glory has had the least attention in terms of comparing the film to the source novel.
   2) United Artists, 86 minutes, 1957 Producer: James B. Harris; Director: Stanley Kubrick; Screenplay: Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick, Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, based on the book of the same name by Cobb; Cinematographer: George Krause; Music: Gerald Fried; Assistant directors: Dixie Sensburg, Franz-Josef Spieker, Hans Stumpf; Art director: Ludwig Reiber; Costume design: Ilse Dubois; Makeup: Arthur Schramm; Sound Department: Martin Müller; Film editor: Eva Kroll; Production manager: John Pommer; Special effects: Erwin Lange; Cast: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Phillip Paris),Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Paul Mireau, 701 Regimental Commander),Wayne Morris (Lieutenant Roget/singing man), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), Christiane Kubrick (German singer), Jerry Hausner (proprietor of café), Peter Capell (Colonel, judge of court-martial), Emile Meyer (Father Dupree), Bert Freed (Sergeant Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Private Lejeune),Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol), Fred Bell (shell shock victim), John Stein (Captain Rousseau, battery commander), Harold Benedict (Captain Nichols, artillery spotter).
   STANLEY KUBRICK acquired the rights to Paths of Glory, HUMPHREY COBB’s angry 1935 novel about World War I, which he had read when he was 14, and developed it into a screenplay with the aid of CALDER WILLINGHAM and JIM THOMPSON. The title of this stark story is a reference to Thomas Gray’s poem, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” in which the poet remarks that the “paths of glory lead but to the grave. ” It becomes increasingly clear as the plot progresses that the paths of glory which the irresponsible French generals are pursuing lead not to their deaths, but to the graves of men who are decreed to die in battles that are fought according to a strategy that the commanding officers manipulate for their own self-advancement.
   The ghastly irresponsibility of the French officers toward their troops is epitomized by the behavior of a general who hopes to gain a promotion by ordering his men to carry out a suicidal charge in the course of an attack. When they falter, he orders other troops to fire into the trenches on their own comrades. Colonel Dax must then stand by while three soldiers are picked almost at random from the ranks of his men to be court-martialed and executed for dereliction of duty, as an example to the rest of the troops. Although some film critics questioned whether or not French officers could be so cruel, Tom Wicker testifies in his essay on films about World War I that the story is “based on an actual Great War incident. ” Paths of Glory, which he believes is the best film ever made about World War I, is “another true story of individual lives ruthlessly sacrificed to a commander’s or a nation’s vanity and indifference to justice and humanity. ”
   The French government was outraged by the film’s depiction of the French army as being presided over by a high command that would sacrifice innocent lives to maintain the image of the military. It was made clear that Paths of Glory would not be released in France; so United Artists, the film’s distributor, was advised that it would be futile to present the film to the French censor, given the movie’s critical view of the French military establishment. In late 1974 French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing stated that there would be no political censorship of films offered for distribution in France, as there had been in the past. That was Kubrick’s cue to announce plans to release the picture in France, in both a subtitled and original version; and in due course, the film was released in Paris in four first-run theaters in 1976.
   The novel is divided into three parts: before the attack; the attack itself and its aftermath; the courtmartial and execution. Kubrick followed this tripartite division of the story in his film adaptation of the novel. As Anthony Ambroglio notes, Kubrick’s film, “true to its source, is practically Aristotelian in its unity of action, time, and place; . . . it has a constant, driving rhythm. ”
   “The film’s anti-war message,” MARIO FALSETTO points out in his book on Kubrick, “clearly has its source in Cobb’s novel. ” He further observes that Kubrick amplified the role of Colonel Dax (KIRK DOUGLAS) from a marginal character in the book to the central character of the film. Colonel Dax thus becomes the character who most cogently articulates the film’s ANTIWAR THEME. When Dax, who is the attorney for the defendants, delivers his emotional speech to the court, Falsetto concludes,“it is a direct plea to the audience. ”
   “Sometimes I am ashamed to call myself a human being, and this is one of them,” he begins. “This trial is a stain on the flag of France. ”The camera is slightly below Dax, emphasizing his imposing figure, as he finishes his statement:“Gentlemen, to find these men guilty will be a crime to haunt each of you to the day you die. I can’t believe the noblest impulse in man, his compassion for another, can be completely dead here. Therefore I humbly beg you to show mercy to these men. ”
   Peter Cowie has written in Seventy Years of Cinema that Kubrick employs his camera in the film “unflinchingly, like a weapon”—darting into closeup to capture the indignation on Dax’s face, sweeping across the slopes to record the wholesale slaughter of a division, or advancing relentlessly at eye level toward the stakes against which the condemned men will be shot.
   Kubrick’s mastery of the camera is exemplified in his deft handling of the breathtaking battle scene that is at the center of the movie. When Dax leads his men into battle, Kubrick shows them pouring onto the battlefield in a high overhead shot of an entire line of soldiers, which reaches from one end of the screen to the other. Then he shifts to a side view of the troops sweeping across the slopes toward the enemy lines. As bombs explode overhead and shrapnel cascades down on the troops, they crouch, run, and crawl forward, falling in and out of shell holes, stumbling over their comrades’ corpses. The director intercuts close-ups of Dax, a whistle clamped between his teeth, as he sees his men dying on all sides of him and as the attack turns into a rout and a retreat.
   The film is filled with ironies, both visual and verbal, which reinforce the theme. Toward the end of the key battle scene, Dax must lead yet another hopeless charge on the impregnable German lines. As he climbs the ladder out of the trench, exhorting his men all the while to renew their courage, he is thrown backward into the trench by the body of a French soldier rolling in on top of him. In the scene in which the condemned await execution, one of them complains that the cockroach he sees on the wall of their cell will be alive after he is dead. One of his comrades smashes the cockroach with his fist, saying,“ Now you’ve got the edge on him. ”
   The novel ends with the execution, but Kubrick’s film goes beyond that episode. A group of hellraising French soldiers in a cabaret ridicule a timid German singer (CHRISTIANE KUBRICK). But when the diffident girl prisoner sings her sad song about love in wartime, the troops go quiet and become teary-eyed as they hum along with the song. Dax, who has observed the scene, walks away, convinced by the good-natured singing that his men have not lost their basic humanity, despite the inhuman conditions in which they live and die.
   Paths of Glory has lost none of its power in the years since it was made. Its examination of the moral dilemmas that are triggered by war and which are sidestepped by the policy makers who should be most concerned about them, has become more relevant than ever in the wake of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the film’s reputation has steadily grown since its release. Judith Crist is cited in Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (1977) as reassessing the film at the time it was released to television; she judged that “this 1957 film has grown in stature through the years, not only as an example of the filmmaker’s art but also as an ultimate comment on the hypocrisies of war. ”The French army in World War I is the subject of the film, she continues, but any army in any war could serve this story. As a matter of fact, in his first feature film, FEAR AND DESIRE, Kubrick deliberately did not specify the actual war during which the story was set, in order to underline the universal implications of the plot. Crist continues, “It is a bitter and biting tale, told with stunning point and nerve-racking intensity in eighty-six brilliant minutes. Kirk Douglas has never been better than as the colonel caught between generals and privates. ”
   Barry Norman points out that Kubrick returned to the underlying theme—the dehumanizing effect of war—in DR. STRANGELOVE and FULL METAL JACKET: “but, admirable as both films are, Paths of Glory covers the subject with greater and more chilling effect. ” For the record, Lawrence Quirk records that, because of the unpalatable true story that the film told, the picture was banned in France for 20 years. “The film has attracted a large cult following in the decades since it was made,” he concludes, because it is not only a superb example of the adaptation of fiction for film, but also a searing commentary on war as “sinister, corrupt, cynical, and manic. ” The ultimate accolade to Kubrick’s film was paid by Stuart Klawans in his survey of films about World War I. He states emphatically that there has been “only one first-rate film about the First World War” in the last half century, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory: “He gave us human disaster, impeccably realized. ”
   References
   ■ Ambrogio, Anthony, “Paths of Glory,” in International Dictionary of Filmmakers, vol. 1, rev. ed. , eds. Nicolet Elert and Aruna Vasudevan (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996), pp. 777–778;
   ■ Bergman, Paul, and Michael Asimow, Reel Justice:The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (Kansas City, Mo. : Andrews-McMeel, 1996, pp. 78–80;
   ■ Chion, Michel, Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey (London: British Film Institute, 2001);
   ■ Cowie, Peter, Seventy Years of Cinema (New Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, and Joe Turkel in Paths of Glory (1957) (Author’s collection) York: A. S. Barnes, 1969), p. 222;
   ■ Falsetto, Mario, Stanley Kubrick:A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis (Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 1994), pp. 39–43;
   ■ Klawans, Stuart, “The First World War Changed Movies,” New York Times, November 19, 2000, sec. 2, pp. 13, 24;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 43–60;
   ■ Quirk, Laurence, The Great War Films (New York: Carol, 1994);
   ■ Roquemore, Joseph, History Goes to the Movies (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 139;
   ■ Wicker,Tom, “World War I,” in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt; 1995), pp. 186–187.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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