The film is set in 1916 on the Western Front. Colonel Dex commands an infantry regiment of the French army. For two years, the Allies have been trying to turn the tide against the Germans. Corps Chief General Brouillard orders Divisional General Miro to attack the impregnable enemy position, nicknamed Ant Hill.
The failure of the operation was obvious initially, but when the attack ended in complete failure, the general ordered that three men be tried and shot for cowardice. Colonel Dax tried in vain to protect the soldiers chosen at random. They gave their lives to cover the stupidity and ambition of their superiors…
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“Paths of Glory” is the picture with which the classic Kubrick actually began. First of all, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb (Kubrick always had a weakness for literary sources). Second, the presence of an uncompromising outlook on things, accompanied at times by his trademark sarcasm and cynicism. Third, the director’s ability to see the essence of what is going on, stripping away a lot of flak. Fourthly, the theme of violence, which will be explored by the master throughout his creative life. And fifthly, the film was the first in the director’s anti-war trilogy.
The First World War. Proud but shattered vestiges of its former greatness, France is fighting Germany for the third year in a row. In order to finally break through the front that has stabilized over time, the French military leadership decides to attack Hill 110 (“Ant Hill”), which is the key to all German positions. Only this assault, in fact, has almost no chance of success. The plot of the film is based on the actual six-month bloodshed of the 1916 Battle of Verdun for the French Fort Duamont, eventually occupied by the Germans.
Kubrick presents the war as two non-overlapping planes. There is a war for high-ranking generals and a war for ordinary soldiers. Both have very few points of contact. For the generals, the task is to win at any price, for soldiers, the task is to pay for this victory at any price. The proverbial “paths of glory” are different for each. For generals they lead to honors and new positions and pass through mountains of corpses of thousands of nameless soldiers. For the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers, it’s all about surviving and getting home. “Paths of Glory” shows the vast chasm between those who give sometimes crazy orders, drinking expensive wine in luxury apartments, and those who obediently fight in dirty trenches under the incessant whistle of bullets. And between them, like a grain of sand of irregular size in the great hourglass of all-devouring time, is the brave Colonel Dax, for whom the soldiers have not yet ceased to matter, above all as men and not as expendable material.
Kubrick’s film is not primarily about war (it is shown in passing), but rather about the injustice of a military system in which every officer would rather protect himself with his subordinate’s back. And every superior officer pressures his subordinate to step up to the next level of the “trail of glory. The chain of command that the director builds comes from the top – Corps Commander General George Brouillard plays on the vanity and ambition of Division Commander General Paul MirÃ³, offering the latter the post of 12th Corps Commander.
Miro, in turn, presses his subordinate Colonel Dax, first flattering him and then sharply formulating the task. The general, who recently defended his soldiers to his superiors, is now carelessly calculating the possible percentage of casualties from the attack. Even if it is half the personnel, the fact has ceased to matter. The main thing is that the resulting figure came out quite optimal. Dax, in turn, is forced to step back and agree. After all, he is only a link in the chain and has no power to break it. “Patriotism is the last refuge for scoundrels,” Dax sharply quotes Samuel Johnson, in response to Miro’s appeals. The last links in the inextricable chain are the soldiers. And there are proverbial “trails” among them. Lieutenant Roget, covering his cowardice and drunkenness, responds to Corporal Paris-“Have you ever tried to accuse an officer? My word against yours. And which of us will be believed?” The circle is closed, and the only way out of it is by running into the only incorruptible judge – an enemy bullet. Or a bullet from one’s own countrymen.
The chasm widens. The frowning faces of the soldiers, doomed to certain death the night before the offensive, figuring out what would be the best way to die from, and General MirÃ³ toasting in his headquarters, “For France!” The ostensible patriotism of the higher ranks and the “patriotism” for which the common people will have to shed their blood. Where to flee to and why? Whom to kill and why? After all, there are the same soldiers fighting for the shoulder straps of their generals. Vague goals, unknown to ordinary warriors, are poured into a simple task, like an enemy’s shot – to seize a piece of land, which by and large no one wants. And in such cases, more often than not, the sense of self-preservation, embedded in man, comes into play much earlier than “patriotism.”
“They’re afraid of German bullets, they’ll get French bullets.” Kubrick shows the futility of establishing justice, even in isolated cases. The three soldiers, who miraculously escaped death, are once again in mortal danger. Behind them are the explosions and the sound of machine guns. But now death comes in the form of a farcical and showy tribunal. From the rotten clerical rats and bureaucrats holed up in the rear.
Kubrick puts everything in its place at once. The trial scene takes place in a castle whose floor resembles a chessboard. This kind of castling, when, covering the main pieces, sacrificing pawns. The judicial molds only emphasize the tragedy and the hopelessness of the situation – “The indictment is too long and there is no point in this reading. And after the verdict, which Dax has not yet been able to appeal, when the three death row prisoners are waiting in despair for their fate, the director again emphasizes in one shot the hopelessness of an ordinary soldier caught up in the grindstone of history. The middle shot shows a cockroach crawling on the table. One of the soldiers says with hatred: “This cockroach has a better chance of getting to my wife and child than I do.” The other palm swats the insect and replies, “Not anymore.” Kubrick’s satire is corrosive. The shooting scene, cynical in its inhumanity, echoes in the ears of those who are lucky this time. Kubrick as a philosopher is unapologetic – today you are lucky, but tomorrow you may not be.
The final scenes are like the calm before a storm that has subsided for a short period of time. The soldiers are drinking and partying in their hour of well-deserved rest. Before death is so near, one must be thoroughly entertained, forgetting for a while the deaths of their comrades. And the captured German girl who appears in front of the audience, a “spoils of war”, only excites the drunken crowd. But Kubrick does not repeat the shocking scene from Sholokhov’s “The Quiet Don”. Dirty and ragged soldiers listen mesmerized to the ballad about love and war, “The Loyal Soldier,” some singing along, some crying. In that moment, home, loved ones and relatives become a little closer. To fade back into the depths of memory moments later, drowned out by the sounds of drums and war music.
Kubrick the fatalist, like death in one newfangled youth horror film, initially marking future suicide bombers to everyone prepares his “path of glory.” For some it will become a path to new orders, for some a hero’s death, some will escape from the hell that is happening around them, to forget for some years the horror of that war already in the face of a more merciless new one. And everyone is destined to walk these “paths” to the end. Both generals and ordinary soldiers. History, which due to its duty needs to arrange everything in its place, will be powerless here. Only a ruthless fate, peering through the black-and-white film of the American director, will distribute everything.
Codec: HEVC / H.265 (80.6 Mb/s)
Resolution: Native 4K (2160p)
HDR: Dolby Vision, HDR10
Original aspect ratio: 1.66:1
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (48kHz, 24-bit)
English: Dolby Digital 2.0