Taking place over the course of a few days during the third year of World War I, Paths of Glory revolves around an ill-fated French infantry charge, the directive of which was to overrun a heavily fortified stronghold (referred to as the “Anthill”) from the opposing German forces. A suicide mission in everything but name, the assault predictably fails with huge scores of French soldiers slaughtered. However, much to the fury of commanding officer Gen. Mireau (George Macready), a handful of troops refuse to leave their post despite the pleas of the heroic Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Humiliated by the costly defeat, Mireau instructs that court martial proceedings be held in order to make an example of his cowardly underlings. A defiant Colonel Dax, meanwhile, volunteers to defend his ‘innocent’ men against the charges.
As with the aforementioned Fear and Desire, in Paths of Glory we gradually see the rank-based hierarchy of military doctrine disintegrate as a result of the unmistakable physical and psychological pressure that can only be induced by armed conflict. Some, like reckless drunkard Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris), seek solace at the bottom of a bottle – a choice that will later come back to haunt him – whilst Dax and the more cogent men under his stewardship seek not to reason why, but simply to do or die. That is until Mireau reveals the true depths of his own Machiavellian malice, calling for French guns to turn on their own besieged troops before hauling three representatives over the coals and onwards towards the firing squad. Sickened by the threat to his brothers in arms from the French elite rather than the Hun, Dax valiantly attempts to appeal to the humanity of the jury members – an admirable, yet ultimately futile folly.
There are several moments when Kubrick forgoes subtlety for all-out ‘right versus wrong’ didactics. Douglas’ Dax is whiter than white throughout, reaching a point of near-spontaneous combustion at the suggestion that he took it upon himself to represent the trio of doomed soldiers in order to further his own military career. Even the slippery Roget walks away relatively scot free, especially when you take into account the considerable blood on his own hands. In addition, the French officers – with their boiled egg and soldier breakfasts and first-name terms – are hardly the complex (if still often farcical) figures of authority we would see throughout Kubrick’s later career. However, as an early offering, Paths of Glory undoubtedly succeeds in both foreshadowing the bravura auteurism that was to come as well as lampooning the abhorrent bureaucracy that destroyed the lives of so many brave young men in Europe’s trenches.