Taylor Downing revisits Stanley Kubrick’s breakout movie dealing with the controversial topic of execution for cowardice in the First World War.
Stanley Kubrick had made only a few documentaries and one full, professionally crewed feature film called The Killing (1956) when MGM expressed an interest in him and his producer James Harris. Looking for a project, the 28-year-old Kubrick remembered a book he had read called Paths of Glory; it had been written by a Canadian, Humphrey Cobb, in 1935.
The book was based on the real story of the execution of five French soldiers for cowardice in 1915. It was turned into a stylised stage play that ran very briefly on Broadway before being forgotten. Kubrick commissioned a script by Jim Thompson, who made one of the minor characters in the book, Colonel Dax, into the central figure of the film.
But MGM wanted nothing to do with the project. ‘We just did The Red Badge of Courage,’ said one MGM exec. ‘Enough with war films. They’re death at the box office.’ Kubrick could find no other studio to show any interest in this strange project about a war that, in any case, did not rate significantly for most Americans.
Hollywood star Kirk Douglas read the script and fell in love with it. He took it to United Artists and persuaded them to back the project if he starred in it. Douglas’s agent wanted a fee of almost one third of the entire budget and demanded that his client’s production company, Bryna Films, make the film. Kubrick and Harris had no option but to accept the deal. It was decided to shoot the film in Munich. More work was done on the script, and the beginning of the shoot approached.
According Douglas’s autobiography, when he arrived in Munich, Kubrick presented him with the rewritten script which – to his horror – had a new, happy ending. Kubrick said he thought this would make the film more commercial. Douglas told Kubrick: ‘I got the money based on the original script. Not this shit. We’re going to do the original script or we’re not making the picture.’
Douglas and Kubrick later fell out, so this story cannot be taken for gospel, but a draft of the script does exist with a happy ending, quite unlike the final film. Producer James Harris did not like this ending either, so it might have been him who changed it.
With the script sorted out, filming began in March 1957. Kubrick shot at a huge German palace six miles outside Munich, the Schleissheim Palace, and at a set of open fields nearby, which were turned into no-man’s land. All the interior sequences were shot at the Geiselgasteig Studios, where Douglas had a deal to shoot his next film, The Vikings.
Shooting lasted for 64 days and was completed on schedule and inside the budget of $950,000. The Munich police provided 600 extras, who enthusiastically dressed up as French poilus. Editing took place in the summer, and the film opened in October 1957. It was only a modest success in the US, but now without doubt stands up as one of the great, classic films about the First World War.
The film begins with a brief narration of the war up to 1916. An American audience, unfamiliar with the story of the First World War, would have needed this. In the opening sequence, the camera tracks Generals Broulard and Mireau as they walk through the magnificent halls of Mireau’s chateau headquarters, giving an impression of how sumptuously the high command lived, well behind the front line.
Broulard was played by the veteran actor Adolphe Menjou, who had actually served in the First World War and was initially reluctant to play a character like this conniving French general. Mireau was played by George Macready, who had a slight scar across his cheek from a car accident; Kubrick instructed the make-up team to accentuate this to make him look more sinister.
Broulard tells Mireau that his troops must take an enemy strongpoint called the Ant Hill. Mireau protests that his men have recently been in combat and are exhausted. When Broulard tells him that there is a promotion to Commander of XII Corps on the cards, Mireau enthusiastically takes on the task and the principal action of the film commences.
General Mireau visits the men of the 701st Regiment in the trenches, and Kubrick shoots this using one of his favourite techniques, a dramatic reverse tracking shot as Mireau walks towards the camera along the trench. He occasionally stops and asks random soldiers, ‘Are you ready to kill more Germans?’ All the French soldiers mumble something appropriate except for one poor man who can barely get any words out at all. ‘He has shell shock,’ says his sergeant. ‘There is no such thing as shell shock,’ shouts Mireau, who insists the man must be removed from the regiment and tells the sergeant, ‘I won’t have brave men contaminated by him.’
Mireau gets to the dugout of the regimental commander, Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas. He tells Dax that he must capture the Ant Hill, and when Dax protests that his men are too exhausted, Mireau threatens to remove him. The threat is enough to bring Dax into line. He agrees to the attack.
The idea behind this sequence was reasonably accurate historically. Commanding officers were terrified of being sent home, accused of not being aggressive enough. Called ‘de-gumming’ in the British army, it was thought the ultimate disgrace. Nevertheless, more than 200 senior British officers were ‘de-gummed’ from the army between 1915 and 1918.
Mireau tells Dax with the cold and callous logic of a First World War commander that he will probably lose 5% of his men in the barrage, 10% in no-man’s land, 20% in getting through the enemy wire, and 25% in attacking the Ant Hill. But he still should have enough left to capture and hold the enemy stronghold. This was the pitiless but relentless logic of a war of attrition. ‘I’m depending on you Colonel,’ Mireau tells Dax. ‘The whole of France is depending on you.’
The attack scene is one of the great setpieces of the film. After a short 15-minute barrage, Dax walks through the trench in another reverse track towards the camera. At zero hour he blows his whistle, and leads his men over the top and into the shell-holed nightmare of no-man’s land.
Kubrick shot the assault with five tracking cameras that moved forwards at the same speed as the advancing soldiers, giving a perspective as though from someone in the assault. He operated a sixth hand-held camera himself and followed Kirk Douglas, as Dax, leading the assault scrambling from one shell-hole to another.
The German policemen played the parts of the French infantrymen with great gusto, falling dead or wounded by the dozen into the mud. Well behind the lines, General Mireau watches the assault through periscope binoculars. He can see that the attack is failing, and notices that one of the companies has not moved out of its trenches. In a rage, he orders his own 75mm guns to open fire on the French troops who are not going forward. At this dreadful order, even the toadying flunkies around the general are shocked.
The battery commander refuses to fire on his own men without a written order from the general. Meanwhile, in no-man’s land, Dax can see that one of his companies is still in the trenches, and he goes to back to rally the men. They refuse to go over the top as the machine-gun and artillery fire from the Ant Hill is so intense, it would be suicide. The attack collapses in failure. Like so many Great War assaults, nothing has been achieved and hundreds of lives have been lost.
The assault sequence is known for its realism, and it certainly looks horribly authentic. The landscape is scarred like a real no-man’s land, although there is probably not quite as much barbed wire as there would have been in actuality. The number of extras gives a shocking sense of the scale of human losses during an attack along the Western Front.
The idea of the general following events closely through binoculars is the one element that defies realism. First World War generals were never able to follow an action along the Western Front, nor were they ever in a position to monitor events. Once men had been ordered to go forward, the high command always lost control over what happened next and, without radio communication, it was usually many hours before accurate reports from the front reached divisional headquarters. However, in Paths of Glory this has to be forgiven for it is an essential element in the plot that Mireau orders his guns to fire on his own men.
After the failed attack, Mireau, who now sees his promotion going down the drain, demands the court martial of the men of the 701st Regiment for cowardice. ‘They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that order,’ says Mireau.
He demands that ten men from each company be charged with cowardice, for which the penalty is death – a total of 100 men. There follows a sequence as callous as the earlier discussion about losses. General Broulard argues him down as though bargaining in an Egyptian bazaar – except these are human lives that are being haggled over. Mireau eventually settles for three men, one from each company in the first wave, to be selected by his company commander.
The trial that follows is one of the film’s centrepieces. Dax, a prominent lawyer before the war, tries his best to defend the men. But the court martial is a kangaroo court. There is no defence in the eyes of the court martial for the men failing to achieve their objective. No rational argument is accepted.
The men are found guilty, and ordered to be shot at dawn. The injustice against men who have showed bravery and heroism throughout the war until the attack on the Ant Hill is monstrous. Instead of sympathy, they receive a sentence of execution. The three miserable prisoners spend their last night arguing in a rotting cell. A fight erupts, and one of them is knocked out.
Meanwhile, the generals have a ball – literally. In the grand chateau the generals and staff officers waltz with society ladies and drink champagne. While the generals dance, the men face death in a cold cell. This really is ‘lions led by donkeys’, four years before the term came into use with Alan Clark’s 1961 book.
But Dax has heard about the incident in which Mireau ordered his guns to fire on his own men. He interrupts Broulard at the ball, and pleads with him to prevent the executions. Broulard comes up with the priceless line, ‘There are few things more stimulating for the men than seeing someone die… Troops crave discipline and one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man every now and again.’
Dax tells the senior general that Mireau ordered the artillery to open fire on the 701st. Broulard is shocked, and fears a scandal will engulf the General Staff. The possibility of a last-minute reprieve hangs over the haunting early morning scene when the three condemned prisoners are lined up in the grounds of the chateau.
This is where, in the early draft script, there would have been a happy ending.
But Kubrick realised this would go against the cruel logic of the film. The men are tied up, the wounded and bandaged prisoner is propped up in his stretcher. It is a truly absurd scene. The firing squad are given the orders: ‘Aim! Fire!’ The men are shot with the camera facing them head-on. There is nowhere else for the viewer to look.
The film cuts to Mireau and Broulard having breakfast following the execution. Mireau is delighted. ‘Didn’t the men die wonderfully?’ he exclaims. Then Broulard confronts him with the fact that he ordered guns to fire on his own men. In the one rare moment of justice in the film, Mireau leaves in disgrace. But to turn the knife of conspiracy and corruption in its own wound, Broulard then offers Dax command of the division to replace Mireau, and says he has clearly been angling for the job since the start. Outraged, Dax turns down the offer.
The problem was then how to end the film. Kubrick’s final sequence shows the men of the 701st in a tavern when the owner brings a captured German girl in to sing. Against a torrent of whistling and cat calls, the terrified girl nervously starts to sing Der Treuer Husar: ‘The Faithful Soldier’.
The men slowly fall silent. They listen enchanted, to a German folk song about love and home. Tears well up in their eyes. Despite the barbarity of war, their sense of humanity survives. Then they are ordered back to the front. The woman who sings the song, Christiane Harlan, the only actress in the film, was Kubrick’s girlfriend. She married him in the following year.
In Paths of Glory you never once see the enemy. There is not a glimpse of a German soldier. Instead the divide in the film is between the life of the frontline soldiers and the generals who lead them. The soldiers live in the mud and filth of the trenches. The generals live in luxury in giant chateaux and sip cognac. The film is divided not in no-man’s land between the soldiers and their ‘enemy’, but in the vast gap between leaders and led.
Paths of Glory has often been called an anti-war film. It is not, except in the most general sense. It is a film that exposes the insanity of high command. This is a theme Kubrick would return to in Dr Strangelove. Paths of Glory is a passionate reminder of what it took to fight an attritional war, and of the appalling injustices that were committed against some of the fighting men who instead of being celebrated for their bravery were cast as villains for their cowardice. It is a powerful reminder of the chilling injustice of war.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick; produced by James Harris; screenplay Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson. Starring Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Ralph Meeker, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, and featuring Christiane Harlan. A Bryna Production for United Artists. An MGM DVD.
This article was originally published in MHM No. 41, February 2014