Great war movies remind us that at best, war is a gruesome duty to fulfill but not to exalt, and at worst, it is a hideous, dehumanizing and destructive farce. Indeed, for every person who is horrified by the prospect of war, there is another thrilled (or at least not particularly bothered) by it, for we are nothing if not a species that gains energy from conflict. But when armies clash, they requires a vast social mechanism to do so. And in every mechanism, there are great, grinding gears that crush whatever falls between them. In war, those things are people, friend and foe alike. But also into the gears go truth, justice, honor, and logic, often not all at once, and often not right away. But on a long enough timeline, all are chewed up by the same machine, a point made with great effect by one of Stanley Kubrick’s early masterpieces, and one of the best antiwar statements ever put to film: Paths of Glory.
The story begins in the midst of World War I, after a few years of internecine trench warfare that has created a bloody stalemate. The new realities of industrialized slaughter have taken everyone by surprise, but the aristocratic leaders behind the lines feel this surprise less than others, and easily order their troops into battle with little care or understanding of the consequences of their orders. Determined to break through the deadlock, the French high command directs a massive attack upon an impregnable German position nicknamed “The Anthill.” They give the job to Colonel Dax, a stalwart soldier and moral compass in territory where morality appears to have vanished altogether. Dax knows the attack on the Anthill is suicide, but follows his orders. When the assault inevitably fails with great loss of French life to no appreciable gain whatsoever, the same commanders who ordered the futile attack decide to execute a few innocent French soldiers to cover up their own ineptitude. Dax protests mightily at this outrage and tries in vain to defend the doomed soldiers in a kangaroo court that the French Army convenes to provide a pretext of justice. But even Dax knows that in this war, there are going to be casualties everywhere, and that No Man’s Land isn’t so much a strip of contested territory, but the moral vacuum of war itself.
Those who are looking for a rousing military adventure meant to stir the blood will not find it here. The combat scenes are very well done, but portray the harrowing futility of individual heroism on a battlefield that seems specifically designed to render its soldiers into helpless cannon fodder. Whether Dax’s men die by gunfire, shrapnel or gas, all of them face the prospect of almost certain death every time they go over the top. That they must do so again and again is a kind of doom all seem to have accepted on some elemental level. They know they are dead men walking, but so long as they are facing roughly the same odds that the poor blighters on the other side must also be facing, then somehow it becomes tolerable. But that is a very delicate equilibrium indeed, and one that can never fully survive the chaos of the front.
Paths of Glory is a scathing criticism not just of the insanity of war, but the manner in which institutions have a way corrupting those who give the orders, as well as needlessly sacrificing those required to make things run. This story takes place during the darkest depths of wartime, but only because it is so much easier to make its point in a setting where humanity is pushed to its extremities. There is a depressing predictability to Paths of Glory, not because of any deficiencies in its plot, acting or direction, but because we have seen this kind of insanity all too many times before. Part of the movie’s purpose is to remind us that we don’t have the luxury to pretend that this doesn’t happen every time we march to war. Nor can we become so numb as to accept it as some kind of normality…or pretend that it doesn’t happen in a hundred other ways during peacetime, as well.
What drives this home so well are the individual characters drawn into a drama several orders of magnitude larger than any of them. All seem to have resigned themselves to the velocity or trajectory of the great injustice they are all a part of. But if there is any heroism to be had here, it’s in the ability for individuals facing imminent doom to maintain their sense of dignity despite conditions that so easily strip it away. The artillery commander who refuses to fire on his own men. The soldier who not only declines a blindfold before the firing squad, but does not curse the officer who wrongly condemned him. Even Colonel Dax rejects a promotion for his failed joust at the French Army itself, knowing it will mean being sent back into the meat grinder. Still, he does not complain. Who would listen?
All of this delivers a moment of truth in the movie’s final scene, when Dax’s soldiers are enjoying a rare respite from battle. The rowdy men fill a tavern for some entertainment, and listen to a captured German girl sing a folk song. But within a few measures, their jeers and whistles turn into tearful humming along to music they do not understand, but which reminds them that none of them would have chosen this for themselves. War has chosen them all, and Colonel Dax—who stands outside, listening to his men—knows it. Which is why, when he is given the order to return his company to the front at once, he delays it for a few minutes. Soon enough, they will all have to give up their lives. But they don’t have to surrender their humanity.