The 1956 answer to Jules Dassin’s Rififi, The Killing, is remembered as Stanley Kubrick’s first mature film. Although it failed at the box office, its artistic qualities didn’t go unnoticed by the critical community and inadvertently put Kubrick on the map; the film became his Hollywood CV of sorts. This is perhaps why he was able to convince Kirk Douglas to star in his next feature, Paths Of Glory, which is now widely referred to as his first masterpiece. And for a good reason.
One has to remember that even though twelve years had passed since the end of World War II, the world in 1957 was still reeling from its aftermath. The continued polarization between two foremost powers, USA and Soviet Union, has crystallized into what we refer to as The Cold War and began venting through smaller proxy conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Glorification of heroism and the immense Allied sacrifice was still prevalent in cinema (David Lean’s The Bridge On The River Kwai won the Oscar that year), though other voices were already punching through. Fred Zinnemann’s From Here To Eternity, a provocative and politically-charged indictment of war and corruption in the armed forces, had won Best Picture only four years earlier.
Therefore, Kubrick’s film may have been greenlit partially to reflect these shifting moods. The fact the book he was adapting was aiming its anti-war rhetoric at the atrocities of The First World War may have helped as well, because these sentiments were much more popular in the 1920s and 1930s. After all, it was supposed to have been The War To End All Wars and it had brought the entire humanity to the brink of collapse, which post-war artists captured in a multitude of ways.
However, the subject matter of Paths Of Glory is incredibly general and thus can be applied to criticize any form of military conflict. This hybrid between a morality play, courtroom procedural and perennial war drama is simply timeless. It is a reflection of impotent frustration at the fundamental injustice and erosion of humanity that are baked into the philosophy of warfare and a scathing criticism of the disconnect between the puffed-up aspirations of generals and their disregard for the sacrifice on behalf of the very people tasked with reducing those aspirations to practice.
Come to think of it, the movie is even more thematically convoluted and rich than that as it weaves in a good handful of other wrinkles and moral quandaries to supplement its main thesis. Its ancillary sub-stories involving a personal feud between two soldiers or a clash between Colonel Dax’s real motives and how he’s perceived by his superiors all saturate the movie with immense depth and give it a truly magnificent momentum building up to an ultimately tragic climax and a heart-rending epilogue.
Suffice it to say that Paths Of Glory is a phenomenal film that stood the test of time and assuredly became a part of the well of inspiration for future filmmakers to draw from. It is impossible not to see this movie’s genetic code in many other anti-war efforts, from The Deer Hunter to Platoon, Casualties Of War and even 1917. Granted, Kubrick would later revisit these anti-war sentiments on a variety of occasions, but Paths Of Glory is, to my mind, probably the best of all of them. It is a tense, gripping and deeply thought-provoking experience that also showcases Kubrick’s developing style and confidence behind the camera, which was on the precipice of blossoming and taking this young and assured filmmaker into a class of his own.