This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Paths of Glory is a harrowing film, starting off as a war picture then becoming a courtroom drama and finally a tragedy. This is a film of death, of history, of injustice. It is Stanley Kubrick's earliest masterpiece, and holds up despite a career filled with many flashier masterworks. It is a broad and important story, highlighting universal themes in a specific context that we ought not to forget.
Stanley Kubrick's directorial precision is fully displayed in Paths of Glory, with a technical beauty to its depiction of war and suffering. It is an oddly clean movie, an ironically pleasant look for a film tinged with death. The deep focus black and white cinematography is mesmerising, and there's a lot of shadows with light pouring onscreen through little gaps. There's also a lot of symmetry, most famously in the way the camera moves through the trenches. It's an iconic, powerful moment, to see Kirk Douglas (who is so fantastic in this film) walk through the trenches as soldiers and explosions surround him - he is a man amongst his men, in solidarity with them. He fights with them, and Kubrick's camera captures them perfectly. We see mud and sweat as men crawl through dirt and gravel, light briefly shining to reveal the bodies. The scene of men running across No Man's Land is one of Kubrick's finest set pieces, huddled men running towards death as a wobbly camera observes it all. Paths of Glory contains plenty of other iconic Kubrick scenes - the trial, the execution - and every single one is perfectly executed, every shot is perfectly framed. The execution sequence is perhaps Kubrick's most emotional moment (maybe only topped by the final scene of Paths of Glory) but it is tinged with sterile realism and slow objectivity. Paths of Glory is Kubrick at his least subtle (the first act contains some over-expository dialogue) but it's also one of his powerful films. It might be an obvious moral tale, but Paths of Glory is created with seamless skill that elevates its story from the simplistic to the complex.
World War One was a complete travesty, a war where a few elites sent millions of people to die just to capture a few hundred yards. Its importance cannot be overlooked, for it set the stage for every other major event since. Unfortunately, in America and Hollywood, World War One is often ignored and sidelined, perhaps because its lessons have not been learnt. It was a war where it was obvious that those in charge of the Allied side were little better than those in charge of the enemy. It was also a war that revealed another truth: most people involved in a war are not ideological. As a society, the West has never really come to terms with the fact that a lot of our wars (especially those still ongoing) are not righteous and not run by people with a humanitarian agenda. World War One is a blatant example of this because of the unsubtle prevalence of class, of an elitist group running everything. The average soldier did not fight for deeply held beliefs, but because society told them to. The only people with principles were the armchair generals but their principles were that the poor should fight or die. We see all of this in Paths of Glory, which dissects the immorality of the people who ran World War One. The film even pushes it to breaking point, as despite being the only ideological characters, the elitist ones still assume that a person would only save lives for selfish reasons. These generals are so out of touch, wanting a "pleasant atmosphere" in the room where they plan the slaughter of thousands. Whilst brave soldiers spill their guts on the battlefield, these generals host parties and go dancing. They view the class hierarchy as reasonable, naturally the posh should decide to fight whilst the common soldier has to actually go through with it. Then, through snobbery, they decide that all those below them should obey, even if they die doing it. The generals think "troops are like children", needing discipline and control. They take it to horrific places, justifying murder as a way to punish those unwilling to take on a suicide mission. It is an absolute injustice that these stories litter the history of World War One. It was a shambolic system, controlled by farcical trials, and killed many people. These generals, who are all so safe and protected, talk about it being "reasonable" to execute three of your own men in Paths of Glory. They may see the troops as children, but they don't love them as if they were children. They even dismiss mental illness - "there's no such thing as shell shock" - because this is how little these elitists cared. They were bastards, and Paths of Glory highlights this truth which we haven't yet totally accepted.
Death permeates Paths of Glory. When an officer walks through the trenches, all the soldiers stand still. This is a film about the long march to death. They walk through the trenches, walk across No Man's Land, and walk to their execution. When a crying man walks to his death, people could stop it but nobody does. There's a cruelty to the death in Paths of Glory too. Soldiers are asked, whilst already standing in blood-soaked trenches, to take part in and observe death. A dying man is healed, just to ensure consciousness when he finally dies. Religion is presented as either useful or useless in our final moments, and it's not the dying that's the problem, it's the lack of reason for the dying (is it right for religion to defend this?). Another question remains, is the fear of death cowardly? That's the whole premise of the brutal justice here, but it's a premise founded by generals who never have to face death. All of this makes Paths of Glory a truly sad movie, especially in its second half where death becomes increasingly unnecessary. Every moment of hope that the film presents as a possible way to stop the execution is slowly and systematically shown to fail. Then we reach the final scene, the sequence which elevates Paths of Glory to a masterpiece. It is a moment of rare happiness for the soldiers, where they hear a beautiful song that brings tears to their eyes (and to mine). They don't know what is happening or why they fight, but they take this moment. It's a melancholic moment of mankind in the worst of times trying to find a little bit of joy. Happy endings mean nothing to the dead, and Paths of Glory shows just one event in a war that will continue to take lives, but it is still something: people trying to not be sad, because the world is shit and they have to trudge through it regardless.
Paths of Glory is a depressing masterpiece, a scathing attack on wartime and Stanley Kubrick at his most direct. There's messages, hints, and subtleties but Paths of Glory is a broad swipe at the inhumanity of those in charge during World War One. It's made with delicate skill, and ultimately a cynical, emotionally charged, death-infused depiction of historical failure.