BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
World War One was the stupidest war ever fought, a total and complete waste of human lives all for the sake of personal gain, national pride, and a perceived breakdown of upper-crust power. The glory-hungry aristocracies running the show cared more about political perceptions than about the men they ordered senselessly to their deaths, and Kubrick doesn't allow us to forget these stupidities in his totally enraging, equally humane take on the planet's dumbest, most vainglorious war.
PATHS OF GLORY is the first nightmare Kubrick filmed in broad daylight. There's a visual logic to the way he assesses this nightmare, from the zigzagging political aspirations of the generals, to the zigzagging lines and paths that besiege the entrenched soldiers. Pay attention to the ironic contrasting between the horrors of the trench and the vanity of the chateau.
The trench is a maze of smoke, debris, death and chaos, with paths leading to a surrealist graveyard above the trench line referred to as No Man's Land. The twists and turns of this claustrophobic space, where soldiers endlessly die and go to the godless sky above, is presented to us in contrast with the spacious but formal hallways of the luxurious chateau, where self-serving generals dance at elegant parties, dream of star-gilded promotions, and sacrifice thousands of lives to advance their own political urges.
The world of the trench and the world of the chateau are paradoxically juxtaposed against each other only later to be conflated as two sides of the same coin. This is important irony, for it highlights the brutal reality of the trench as being a direct consequence of the politics of the chateau. It also stresses the absurd political and psychological forces that defined both the soldiers who actually fought the war, and the elitists who merely puppeteered from the sidelines.
Paths leading to "glory" are only insults to irony, as they lead either to vain ambition, delusion, moral corruption, or annihilation. Kubrick creates a visual definition of conflict between these paths, starting from the top of the command chain with the cocky tyranny of the generals, then descending its way downward to the cockroach-like soldiers at the bottom of the food chain. The soldiers are nothing but disposable insects to the generals. They are considered lower forms of life that can be easily sacrificed without consideration of a moral order, if only to gain a few more feet of land in the war's totally asinine territorial dispute.
As horrible as the first half is, with its cold emphasis on the trench and all that rain of death falling from the sky, the second half is even more sinister when the trench enters the battleground of the chateau. When three French soldiers are court-martialed for "cowardice" after failing a suicide mission to advance enemy lines, you're not just watching a kangaroo court in session. You're watching the failure of an institution to protect its own. The chateau is meant to be a place of order and control, opposite the carnage of the trench, but as it becomes apparent that the judges have no interest in humane politics and are really only concerned by how the failure of seizing Ant Hill will be perceived politically, we reach a full stop realization: the chateau and the trench are actually one in the same reality. They've surrealistically blended.
Kubrick choreographs the court-martial itself like a game of chess. The marble floor is checkered like a chessboard, causing the soldiers to appear as though they were pawns in the grip of a corrupt king's court. The camera moves along horizontal paths like advancing pieces on a gameboard, which mirrors the horizontal tracking shots in the world of the trench. While the order of the chateau and the chaos of the trench differ in form, they share the same ugly substance and exhibit the same existential struggle. The three men on trial were miraculously not killed in the trench, yet are horrifyingly sentenced in the chateau, by their own team no less, all for the purpose of staging an example and preserving an empty sense of glory for their superiors. Who's the real enemy?
It is only when the chateau points to the path that connects to the execution site that we see all of Kubrick's ironic blending come to a head. Here we have three soldiers marching to an uncanny death, in their own base, by their own teammates, with a predetermined verdict stamped upon their souls for which a trial without witnesses or records was honored. It's a totally absurd reality of an institution gone emphatically south, reinforcing once again Kubrick's disenchantment with modern man's ability to ethically control his environment. The paradoxical blending of trench and chateau is a nightmare of livid proportions, leading nowhere except into a zigzagging maze of ironic associations. When the trench enters the chateau, and the chateau commits itself to a preposterously lethal conclusion, we see that order is perverted by chaos, morality is perverted by immorality, rationality is perverted by irrationality, liberty is perverted by entrapment, and progression is perverted by retrogression. This is a society that has no faith in the tenets of the Enlightenment, and is subsequently destroying itself.
Almost any other Kubrick film would've reveled in the mire of despair, but what separates PATHS OF GLORY from his other work is its unassailable spirit of humanism that animates the center through Kirk Douglas' Dax. He is the voice of reason, heart and idealism throughout, one who represents the compassionate view of an ordered and purposeful cosmos. It's no surprise that Kubrick never allows the cynicism of the story to be tinctured by Dax's sentimentality or belief in human goodness, but there is something mysteriously beautiful in the film's final scene that infuses its otherwise bleak perspective with a lovely sense of brotherhood. When a frightened young German woman sings a German folk song before a crowd of jeering, uncouth French soldiers, the song touches each of them in ways they weren't expecting. It's the purest moment of "art" in the film, something that isn't understood but felt as a small, conciliatory gesture.
When Dax hears the song and sees the look on the soldiers' faces, you get a sense that he always believed these men were human despite the generals who saw them as cockroaches. Maybe this is what he's fighting for. Maybe this is why he's in the trenches with them. The whole "fighting to save humanity" motif may be a bit blunt for some viewers, but I was touched. There's enough horror and madness to counterbalance this one small moment of hope, and for me that behaved as a welcomed surprise in Kubrick's otherwise nihilistic canon. While not the most profound film he ever made, it is the most affecting.