Spinning back time: Paths of Glory

While cinema has come a long way in terms of technology and the manner in which movies are now displayed on the big screen, something that hasn’t changed much is the importance of a fine story and the art of story-telling. That is the core of any great movie, the heartbeat that makes classics, well, classics. So occasionally it may not be a bad thing to dig through the old archives and re-discover a movie decades old, which would look and feel out of place at the first glance, and yet manage to capture your mind with its artfully handled creation and its sense of purpose. One such movie is Paths of Glory, that I had the good fortune of viewing recently.

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Paths of Glory is a 1957 American film adapted from a novel of the same name written by Humphrey Cobb. The first two things that should get you interested to watch this movie are the names Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas. Kubrick was already a few movies old in Hollywood, and his previous directed film The Killing had been a great critical success. The story goes that MGM hired Kubrick to work on their next film, but not finding any material worth making a movie on, Kubrick recollected a book he had read when he was younger. The book Paths of Glory was an anti-war tale, based on a true story of four French soldiers who were executed to set an example to the rest of the troops during World War I. The story highlights the horrors of war, portraying an angle not really thought of, but the brutality of its honesty is maybe what alienated the audience of those times from the book and the subsequent play based on it. Despite the two decades that passed between the publication of the book and Kubrick’s idea to build a movie out of it, MGM was reluctant and feared it may not be a success.

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Kirk Douglas had already established himself well in Hollywood by then. His cleft-chin and steely eyes along with his obvious talent were turning him into a superstar. Getting Kirk Douglas to play the role of Colonel Dax was probably the best move that Kubrick could have made. The tale goes that when Kubrick approached Douglas with the script, the latter instantly fell in love with it, and told Kubrick, “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.”

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The movie takes us back to the times of World War I. It begins in 1916 with a voiceover describing the trench warfare situation of that period. In those difficult times, General George Broulard asks the ambitious General Mireau, his subordinate, to take over a difficult German position called “Anthill”. The mission is nothing akin of a suicide trip but with the possible glory and medals that could follow, were it to be a success, makes General Mireau agree to the proposal. Mireau then passes on the commands to the regiment’s Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) whose protests on the ill-effects of the mission fall in deaf ears. What follows then is the overly ambitious attempt by the French Army to take over Anthill, driven by the greedy ambitions of one man, the subsequent trials on a few soldiers to deflect the blame away from Mireau, the vehement defense of his troops by Dax and the underlying politics that mar the very concept of humanity and empathy.

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Paths of Glory excels on many counts. It carries with it the weight of a story that holds significance not only then, but even now as the horrors of mindless wars and battles refuse to cease. To carry out the bidding of a few who seek their own personal glories by callously stepping on uncountable number of bodies, much is being lost, not only in the form of lives and resources but the destruction of society itself, and the right to live in a freer world on our own accord. Paths of Glory brings forth strongly these concepts, first through its reenactment of the trench warfare for much of the first half of the movie, and then highlighting the bigger battle in the latter part of the movie, that of fighting the bureaucracy within the system. It condemns this not by grand speeches and great shows of valour of the heroes involved here, but by displaying the frailty felt while fighting the system that was setup in the first place to protect.

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Paths of Glory has the right shoulders to carry across the message it wants to bring out. The shoulders of Kirk Douglas. The actor mesmerizes you in each scene; the depth of his voice, his piercing eyes, his erect military walk, his sense of duty to seek justice, his helplessness at fighting an archaic system, be it any scene, Douglas steals the show. As this is the first movie I have seen with Douglas as the lead actor, now there will be many more that I would gladly look forward to. Adolphe Menjou as General George Broulard and George Macready as General Mireau are two other central characters that put on a fine performance, along with the rest of the supporting cast. But by the end of the movie, it would be difficult to remember anyone but Kirk Douglas and Colonel Dax as the heroes to admire.

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Paths of Glory was not a great box-office success. It went through its own set of trials and tribulations to get released in many countries of Europe. France was hesitant to bring this movie to her theatres, and it was only in 1975 that the film was finally shown in France. In Germany, the film was not allowed to be shown for two years after its release to avoid any strain in relations with France. The film released in Spain only in 1986. Belgium allowed the film to run only after a foreword was added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the “gallantry of the French soldiers.”

Paths of Glory despite all its hurdles has stood the test of time and remains an exquisite piece of movie making that should be seen by one and all of any era. At present, it stands at #51 on Imdb and holds a 93% Tomatometer score on Rottentomatoes.com. Some may love each second of it, some may not love it to the extent that others do, some may not even appreciate the thoughts expressed by the movie. Be your own judge on this one, for if nothing else then Paths of Glory deserves one watch at least!


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