Stanley Kubrick employs numerous tracking shots in Paths of Glory, using geometric precision to undermine the sense of expansiveness normally evoked in long shots. As the opening narration reminds its audience, World War I was fought for four years in the same area of battlefield where it started. Kubrick's camera tracks down the fortified trenches and, occasionally, in the No-Man's Land between them, moving perfectly forward and backward inside and horizontally outside across hundreds of feet of space. Yet even when not trapped between the walls of earthen lines, the film feels cramped and claustrophobic. Over the top, the sudden erasure of horizontal restriction is canceled out by the simple fact that the wide world outside those trenches matters only insofar as the distance to the next hole forward.
The unnatural movement creates a sense of unease, as if the characters caged within the frame are but lab rats to be exploited and arranged by the man behind the curtain. Ergo, Kubrick, that perfectionist taskmaster, casts himself as the same overbearing general that so casually sent millions to their deaths in World War I. Though Paths of Glory is Kubrick's most earnest and immediately emotional picture, this alignment of filmmaker with a corrupt power structure that places those with the least amount of hands-on knowledge with the various types of people under hum at the top of the heap suggests that his satiric grasp is not dulled for the film's impassioned messaging.
The use of "La Marseillaise" over the opening credits is bombastic but, as we'll soon find out, ironic. The stirring sound of its patriotic brass gives way to a shot of a French château miles away from the front, the drum roll over the soundtrack and the soldiers standing in formation on the mansion grounds wholly at odds with this idyllic view of lingering French aristocracy. Inside, two generals, Mireau (George Macready) and Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), meet for wining and dining in a manner that recalls Renoir's Grand Illusion. Broulard, the direct superior, discusses the top brass' want of a section of German-controlled land called the "Anthill" and wants Mireau to send his regiments to take it. Mireau, aware of how beleaguered his troops are, notes that sending them over the top would amount to nothing more than a suicide mission that would cost hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Then, Broulard casually mentions that Mireau would be up for promotion if he ordered the attack, and the other general begins planning how an attack would succeed as if he never voiced opposition.
The camera cuts from the expansive, high ceilings of the château to the trenches, where there is no structure hanging between people and sky yet the sudden lack of high-angle shots compresses the frame. As it eerily glides through the ditch in straight lines, the camera resembles a ghost moving unnaturally through the land of the living, or at least the fractured nebula between life and death. Where a handful of wealthy generals occupy the vast castle, these cramped pits hold throngs of men stewing in filth and claustrophobic fear. By maintaining medium level and angle with his camera, Kubrick offers no break in perspective, no chance to feel anything but the stark dimensions of the trench.
For all the obviousness of the script, co-written by Kubrick with Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham, the staging adds degrees of chilling, realistic repulsiveness to the more melodramatic dialogue. Mireau's tour of the trenches is supposed to have that effect of boosting morale, but all he does is offer transparently supportive pablum before slapping around a shellshocked man after stating flatly that there is no such thing as the psychological condition. In Col. Dax's (Kirk Douglas) bunker quarters, he voices dissent with the general, but the lighting and blocking indicates that even the mighty Douglas is in the role of the inferior. If he refuses to send his men to a pointless death (and one costly to the war effort, since it will fray and tatter the front line), Mireau will simply replace him. He agrees to the charge not for personal gain but because it will happen with or without him and he actually has his men's safety at heart.
If Paths of Glory has any one point to make, it's that the titular journey to glory cannot exist in war. On one hand, it is a merciless meat grinder, pushing wave after wave of men through a giant abattoir, and glory is awarded retroactively to the side that say "Enough" last. On the other, it is even more garish, a bureaucratic power struggle that reduces the station of fighting men even below that of animals, all the way down to a number. As Stalin said, "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Mireau, Broulard and the other brass will tally up the numbers before and after and use the outcomes to justify advancement and demotion along an arbitrary hierarchy. It's a cold, merciless overview of humanity, which makes Kubrick, the distant, arty provocateur, the perfect man to examine it.
He calmly establishes the absurdity and meaningless of military ranking with Roget and Paris (Ralph Meeker). Lt. Roget heads a small band of scouts on a reconnaissance mission before the main charge. In the dead of night, Roget prepares for his mission by getting plastered on wine while his two subordinates look on in disgust. Paris went to the same school as Roget, had the same family background and is clearly more competent than the officer, but Roget knew how to play the game and won advancement. During their scouting run, Roget panics and throws his grenade at the other scout and flees back to the trench while Paris confirms that the lieutenant murdered one of his own. When he comes back, he threatens Roget with turning him in, but the officer smiles because he knows a military tribunal will decide he is the more trustworthy and truthful soldier because of the bars on his shoulder. He falsifies his report and goes back to his wine, satisfied that Paris won't bother bringing charges.
As for the battle scene itself, Kubrick captures the terrifying frenzy that Steven Spielberg would later command in his Saving Private Ryan despite his use of more formal technique over visceral hand-held shots. In so doing, the director avoids the side-effect of glamorizing the fight and making it exciting. Compounding this approach is the horrible fact that the French, the heroes against the Germans and the only side focused upon in the film, never gets to fire back, never gets to take an enemy position or do anything but die in droves. The Americans might have been chewed to pieces when those ship ramps dropped in Ryan, but they eventually took the beach. This is nothing but a slaughter, and Kubrick's camera just keeps gliding over the carnage, occasionally panning quickly as if curious to see the strange ways in which mankind destroys itself.
Kubrick's detached approach to the fighting makes for gentle horror: when Dax falls back to a trench to reorganize and plan, the once-cramped area now looks tattered and empty save for the occasional corpse belonging to men who never even managed to climb out of their trap before being mowed down. POV shots of the binoculars show an entire contingent of men who refuse to follow orders, but that telescopic shot become a form of targeting when an enraged Mireau orders artillery to shell his own men to motivate them from the trenches. The artillery captain refuses, ensuring that the mission's inevitable failure will not kill all of the three companies assembled.
At this stage the film kicks into its proper narrative, the court martial trial that arises from Mireau's outrage. He and Broulard invite Dax out to their château to choose men, and Dax sarcastically responds that all surviving members of the charge should be killed. Sufficiently aware that it wouldn't do much good to execute the whole French Army, Broulard whittles down Mireau's 100-man demand to a dozen. Finally, three are to be chosen, one from each company. Dax attempts to volunteer himself, saying he was the officer in charge, and his pointed glare withers Mireau's fire as the man shrinks away from Douglas' stone face. Broulard dismisses that idea outright, not wishing any officers to lose face. Besides, he probably knows that killing an officer for incompetence might raise morale so much the enlisted might start doing it for entertainment.
The trial itself is so farcical that Kubrick deserves credit for not lapsing fully into comedy. The three men are chosen harshly by their superiors: Paris gets sent by Roget to ensure no word ever gets out about his friendly fire, Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) goes because his C.O. finds him a "social undesirable," and Pvt. Arnaud, twice decorated for bravery, found himself sent to trial when his company drew lots to find the "guilty" party. Each is hammered by the prosecution, who delivers his questions with sneering contempt, as if he not only will send his compatriots to their death but wants to. Kubrick frames each soldier's examination in medium close-up, allowing us to peer behind their faces to see the other two defendants seated in front of armed guards, the slightly shallow focus allowing us to seem the clearly while still emphasizing the space that isolates each; they may be tried together, but they're being torn apart separately to prevent any connection of defense. When the camera pulls back to a high-angle long shot at the back of the hall, we see the soldiers aligned on alternating black and white tiles. The dominant visual metaphor of Dr. Strangelove was a poker table in the War Room; Paths of Glory evokes chess. Either way, those in charge continue to play games using those without.
Not even the verve of Douglas' screen presence can sway the jury determined to carry out its "example." Kubrick ironically used Douglas, one of the great antiheroes, as a beacon of true morality and heroism in both this and Spartacus, yet both films turn that inversion over once more by making Douglas' sudden purity wholly inadequate to stop the mounting fatalism of both endings. The other voices are clear in the mix as they give testimony or ask questions of the prosecuted, but Dax's voice echoes in the vast parlor, communicating less the power and authority of his words than the futility of fighting. His words break and fade into nothingness while the generals continue smirking. At the end of the film, Dax meets with the generals once more to bring charges against Mireau for trying to fire on his own men in battle, and Broulard believes he knows the colonel's motivations, believing him to be throwing Mireau under the bus to secure his own advancement. (The slight tone of admiration and approval in Broulard's voice suggests that even the camaraderie of the officer class is based entirely on how well people play the game.) Dax viciously responds, and Broulard changes tone to one of pity and parental disappointment at Dax's idealism, utterly blind to his own culpability.
Kubrick tempers the messaging of these scenes with darker, ostensibly superfluous scenes that may contain the same direct dialogue but deepen the film for their extraneous development. Before the charge, a fast-talking soldier wakes up a buddy in a panic to get into a discussion about whether one would rather be killed by machine gun or bayonet. The comrade agrees the machine gun fire would be preferable because it is instant, leading to a chat on the difference between fear of pain and that of death and that soldiers really fear injury. An antipersonnel explosive is worse than nerve gas because the gas kills in seconds; a mine designed to maim instead of kill, draining national resources in terms of health care and sapping civilian support when some limbless freak gets foisted back onto his parents and spouse. The power of that scene downplays any romantic sentiment of death for glory: death is simply the quickest way to make the horror stop.
Low-key lighting adds a noirish touch to Paths of Glory, perhaps a lingering affect from Kubrick's work on The Killing but also a means to tie in this war film with the aesthetic and mindset of the more cynical, anti-authoritarian genre. Formal lighting places Dax in brighter profile while Mireau and Broulard are shadowed even when standing right next to Douglas, but the manner in which lighting can spin on a dime from the illuminated long shot of the château parlor to a darker medium shot in the same room instantly changes mood. James Jones, veteran and author of The Thin Red Line among other novels, panned the film for still adhering to enough conventions that, to him, it failed as an anti-war picture, but Paths of Glory goes out of its way never to glorify anything. One cannot even get a thrill of horror from the actual execution, as, after following the condemned in medium close-ups, he cuts to a long shot from the firing squad's POV as the drum roll ends and the faint chirping of a songbird can be heard. The command to fire breaks the terrible tranquility, and the bodies fall over without sound or accompaniment.
Of course, the most superfluous touch is also the film's greatest moment. Rather than end with the execution and Dax's rousing but pointless condemnation of the generals, Kubrick inserts a coda of the remaining men drinking and carousing in a tavern, unloading the pain of the battlefield and of what they just witnessed from their own command. A captured German woman (Kubrick's later wife, Christiane), beautiful and terrified, is brought in to sing for the men, who scream and hoot with rapacious savagery. When she begins to sing a German folk tune, however, the catcalling ceases, and the men realize suddenly that they are like her, trapped and forced to perform for those arbitrarily deemed "superior." Their hoots turn to hums and tears stream down men's faces as they do the girl's. It is one of the most powerful moments in the director's filmography, and therefore all of cinema, a complete deflation of whatever tinge of nationalistic pride that can make these men forget how little their lives are worth to those who send them to die.
The film at last ends with Dax returning to his quarters, the dolly that tracks to his door a reflection of the shot that followed him out of his bunker. The drum roll flourish also creates a reflective aural element, recalling the opening sounds. Not a damn thing has changed by the end of this movie: neither side has advanced, and the French Army has not solidified loyalty by killing its own. It is one of the bleakest endings put on screen, and as damning an indictment of war as has ever been made. Yet by embodying the remorseless remove of those who play chess with men's lives, Kubrick reveals the abhorrence of rationality and mathematical views of humanity. He would not display such outright humanism again until his swan song.