Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick is a black and white film that explores a number of deep and controversial issues related to war and its effects on the human spirit. First of all, the film revolves around a suicidal assault carried out by a French unit in order to take control of a well-defended and strategically-located German fortress. In spite of being based on a novel written by Humphrey Cobb, it has been observed that the events portrayed in Paths of Glory are somehow linked to the 1916 Battle of Verdun, during which over 715000 soldiers lost their lives.
As an independent, low-budget film, Paths of Glory does not feature any noteworthy special effects and was not shot in many different locations around the world – the entire film was shot and produced in Germany; that being said, its costumes and settings play a very important role in conveying some essential messages about warfare and depicting the dynamics of war in a remarkably realistic way. For example, the beautiful and luxurious palace where French army officers meet to plan the assault and make strategic decisions that will affect thousands of people clearly shows their detachment from the pain and sufferance that soldiers will have to endure as a result of their military and political interests. The exquisitely-decorated chateau is the place where Commander George Broulard – a clever, pragmatic and ruthless man – tells General Paul Mireau that he expects his division to take a German stronghold known as the Ant Hill within the next two days. At this point, Mireau points out that his battle-weary men are not ready to carry out such an ambitious attack and that Broulard’s plan would certainly kill them all. However, when Broulard suggests that Mireau might be considered for a very appealing promotion if he succeeds in taking the German stronghold. This scene is particularly significant as it clearly shows how glory, war and vanity can cause even the most loyal and responsible man to compromise on his apparently unnegotiable values.
In a later scene, Mireau reaches the tranches near the German stronghold to provide Commander Colonel Dax with instructions concerning the upcoming assault. As he walks through the trenches, the audience can fully appreciate the difference between the wonderful places where decisions are made and the muddy, dangerous war zones where plans are actually executed. Mireau is obviously isolated from his soldiers from on a psychological and physical level, which is why he ends up passing the responsibility of the suicidal assault onto Dax.
Cowardice is another important theme that Kubrick investigates through a confused soldier who seems to be experiencing shell shock, which may be defined as a negative reaction to the difficulties and tragic events of war. The most surprising fact is that Mireau, who initially praised his men and took their side, refuses to believe that one of his subordinates is evidently suffering from shell shock. Instead, he gets irritated, slaps the soldier and humiliates him by calling him “baby” and accusing him of cowardice. This scene is certainly meaningful as it sensitizes the audience to the terrible effects that battle can have not only on soldiers’ bodies, but also on their minds, making them paranoid, confused and incapable of thinking clearly, to name but a few. Moreover, it is interesting how Mireau, who cowardly asked his field commander to take responsibility of the attack, was so quick to accuse another man of cowardice. On the day of the assault, Dax’s men fail to reach the Ant Hill and Mireau orders his soldiers to fire on them so as to force them to proceed towards the German trenches. This scene is an excellent example of dehumanization, as it shows how war can easily turn men into ruthless and merciless killing machines with no empathy for their fellow human beings whatsoever.
Following the disastrous end of the attack, Mireau decides to defend his position by having a hundred soldiers court-martialed for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer before joining the army, offers to defend the regiment but soon realizes that the entire trial is being manipulated. In the end, three men are unfairly sentenced to death and Dax informs Mireau that his order to open fire on his own soldiers will be investigated in greater depth.
In view of the themes covered in Paths of Glory, it is evident that by choosing a title that ironically alludes to the glorious aspects of war, Kubrick meant to stress the fact that war leads to unhuman behavior, betrayal and, of course, death.