It’s honestly a bit of a puzzlement of mine that there aren’t more WWI movies out there. I mean, sure they are out there, but WWII is most certainly the war that gets the most exposure in terms of media, and entertainment. The biggest question i have to ask is: why?
Why isn’t this war more focused on? After all, WWII is very easily argued as a necessary evil to stop the terrible slaughter that the Nazi’s and Imperial Japan were reaping on their respective fronts. If you wanted to make an anti-war film WWI i say is certainly up there as one the best ones you could possibly pick. After all, what did all those men in their millions fight and die for? God, King, and Country? Imperialism? Those are awful, awful, reasons to send millions of men to die for*. Yes, the political and social effects of WWI have most certainly helped create our way of life and yes, that war caused the downfall of rampant imperialism (which is a good thing). But it is a tremendous shame that it cost the lives of millions of men to do so, and will remain a terrible tragedy for as long as its history endures.
If i were pressed for an answer to the first question above, i would cite two reasons as to why we don’t see more movies on the so-called “war to end all wars”. It had the bad luck of being almost a prelude to the even more horrible WWII, and honestly since the American involvement in The Great War, amounted to essentially providing meat for the grinder, as opposed to the delusion that they won the entire thing. As a result, Hollywood as a whole isn’t really interesting in throwing millions of dollars to depict the American army just helping to win that war as opposed to being the sole reason it ended**.
And that brings us to Paths of Glory, how on Earth does this exist? An American made movie, that follows French soldiers, and in a war where it is hard to glorify American involvement… There truly are exceptions to everything.
Heads will roll in the French army after a futile and failed attack was made on German positions, leads to a general court-martial where Colonel Dax defends his men against the cold and uncaring higher command of French army.
Anti-War statements were rather unpopular back in the 50’s. Which makes perfect sense, it was only after the Vietnam war and The State’s failure there that anti-war movies began to be made in the amounts we see today. With that in mind it is extremely commendable that the producers decided to make a film that is this blatantly and scathingly anti-war. There is absolutely no glory to be had in the trenches and no valour or heroism during the battles, only slaughter. In fact the only moment of shared humanity and brevity comes at the end, where a group of soldiers gather to hear a woman sing. Indeed “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, couldn’t be more true than here in this film. All the fighting men were told to attack for the glory of France, and they died in their millions for that hollow promise.
Also, i will make the assumption to make a movie that is this anti-patriotic was also a bit of a challenge, although it helps that the soldiers here are French ones instead of American. On top of Colonel Dax’s quoting Samuel Johnson, i’m also reminded of Oscar Wilde’s words that: “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”. Indeed both quotes are most certainly representative of the higher command elements within Paths of Glory, while the regular soldiers fighting and dying in the trenches are ostensibly fighting in the name of France, it is the officers who hide behind their patriotism to justify their vanity.
Kirk Douglas is in top form here, he gives Colonel Dax his likeable and strong charisma, and is very easily believable as an officer who would be the first one out of the trenches to lead his men in an attack that he knows will fail. Stanley Kubrick brings his usual visual touches of strong linear lines and uses them to emphasize space, scale, and tension. All of which show that even at such an early phase of his career he was if anything at least a master of using the camera to become part of the scene.
While Douglas and most of the rest of the cast give decent performances, i must say that Timothy Carey’s strange facial expressions, and dopey mannerisms make me ask what exactly is he trying to do, and does he himself even know? Considering his roles that he was known for taking and habit of improvisation i suppose it was par for the course. The worst performance of the film however must go hands down to Wayne Morris however, his “gee, golly, whiz” delivery is absolutely atrocious, and while i can accept that maybe he was trying to make his character like that, i haven’t seen any other film he is in and can only use this one as an example.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more WWI movies out there, the ground is still fertile for exploration of the various themes brought up in Paths of Glory. As it is, despite some minor issues this is certainly at the top of the pile of films about WWI and war films in general.
**** 1/2 OUT OF FIVE
*i do realise there were a lot more reasons for that war to break out then the ones listed above. In fact even a glance at the geopolitical situation shows that the break out of this war was many decades in the making. However when looking at WWI was there really a “bad guy”? All of the parties involved had set up their own empires around the world robbing nations of their sovereignty and stealing their riches for their own selfish desires. WWI had a lot to do with the ending of all that.
**I am well aware of the American’s pivotal role in stopping the German break through in 1917. However, considering most of the break throughs accomplished during the “100 days” were made by units of the common wealth (particularly ahem… Canada), it is a sad fact that in the end they provided the much-needed man power to hold ground that was lost, and most certainly did not “win” that war.