Kubrick’s Paths of Glory explores the political turbulence between French soldiers during the first World War I, where Colonel Dax refused to take part in a suicide mission requested by the megalomaniac General Mireau. The result of his action cost three of his division’s soldiers charged of cowardice in a court-martial. Despite the theme of political tension in the script, this black and white movie is never political. Where else, it raises series of questions for the audience to meditate upon: What are soldiers? What is duty? What is honour? Why should one sacrifice themselves for their country in the name of patriotism? Those, at least, were the questions that kept my brain occupied during the 88 minutes running time.
Kirk Douglas (Michael Douglas’ father) is excellent as Colonel Dax, a righteous and kind man who stand up against the prejudiced of his superiors. My favourite scene was when Dax strode to the middle of the courtroom and said: “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion”. No one can argue that it was the single greatest scene in the film. However, Kubrick outdo himself with the ending, when we see a crowd of drunken French soldiers humming along to “The Faithful Hussar“, a German folk song, without knowing a single word of it – the jarring scene gives the audience a rude awakening and realized that this is real, this happened.
There are several fantastic war movies out there that both glorified and break down the identity of warfare, but none of them ever questioned the justification of power play inside an army troop like Paths of Glory did.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
– Thomas Gray