The futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack.
Kirk Douglas ... Col. Dax
Ralph Meeker ... Cpl. Philippe Paris
Adolphe Menjou ... Gen. George Broulard
George Macready ... Gen. Paul Mireau
Wayne Morris ... Lt. Roget / Singing man
Richard Anderson ... Maj. Saint-Auban
Joe Turkel ... Pvt. Pierre Arnaud (as Joseph Turkel)
Christiane Kubrick ... German singer (as Susanne Christian)
Jerry Hausner ... Proprietor of cafe
Peter Capell ... Narrator of opening sequence / Judge (colonel) of court-martial
Emile Meyer ... Father Dupree
Bert Freed ... Sgt. Boulanger
Kem Dibbs ... Pvt. Lejeune
Timothy Carey ... Pvt. Maurice Ferol
Fred Bell ... Shell-shock victim
At only 29 years of age and in only his second major studio release, Stanley Kubrick showed the world that he was a force to be reckoned with. By the time he died 42 years later his films were epochal events waited for breathlessly by his large band of devotees who considered him a director without equal. He seldom disappointed them.
This movie is set in World War I amidst the incredibly destructive and futile trench warfare between France and Germany. Kirk Douglas plays Frenchman Colonel Dax, who is ordered to make an impossible assault on a heavily-fortified enemy position. The only reason this charge is being made is that his commanding general, played by George Macready, believes that capturing the position will earn him a promotion. When the assault does not go forward under heavy enemy bombardment, the general is infuriated and demands that three men be arbitrarily chosen to stand trial for cowardice, an offense punishable by death. Col. Dax defends these men at their court-martial.
The battle and trial scenes are about as good as have ever been filmed and the high level of tension is sustained throughout the movie. After the film's climax has occurred, Col. Dax goes looking for his troops and finds them relaxing at a cafe. What he and the viewer witness there is possibly the most affecting scene I've ever seen on screen.
Looking at this film in perspective, it's easy to see Kubrick's trademarks even at this early stage of his career. The attention to the composition of his shots reflects his background as a still photographer and foreshadows his other great films to come. I find myself most impressed today with the way he could handle a dramatic story like this one without any innovative techniques or unusual special effects to hide behind, then turn around and make such totally different films like '2001...' and 'Dr. Strangelove...' Other films like 'The Shining' and 'Barry Lyndon' combined a strong story line with breakthrough film techniques. His versatility astonishes me.
Adolphe Menjou also stars as the general who convinces Dax's superior officer to risk the ill-fated charge. Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel give strong performances as the men on trial. Turkel turns up 23 years later in another Kubrick film, 'The Shining,' playing the bartender.
You can take your pick: 'Paths of Glory' can rightly be described as one of the greatest war movies of all, or one of the great anti-war films, or as one of Kubrick's best. Or simply one of the best, period.
# Although the story takes place on France's western front, Stanley Kubrick chose to shoot the film in and around Munich, Germany. Most interior scenes were filmed at Bavaria's Geiselgasteig Studios, and the court-martial scenes were shot in nearby Schleissheim Castle, an 18th-century structure then serving as a national museum. Just beyond this location is the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial.
# For box office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happy ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it.
# Richard Burton and James Mason were considered for the part of Colonel Dax.
# When Kirk Douglas was first approached for the role, he was committed to a Broadway play. Stanley Kubrick then met Gregory Peck in connection with How to Steal a Million (1966); Peck was interested but was also unavailable. Douglas' play was postponed and then Peck also became available; Douglas got in first and got the part.
# Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.
# The title is a quotation from Thomas Gray's 'Elegy written in a country churchyard': "The paths of glory lead but to the grave".
# Was banned in France for its negative portrayal of the French army.
# In an early attempt to sell the project to a studio, Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris rented military uniforms and gathered several male friends to pose for a photograph that would capture the essence of their story. They affixed the photo to the cover of each screenplay copy.
# Stanley Kubrick, widely known as a perfectionist, shot 68 takes of the doomed men's "last meal" scene. Because the details of the scene required that the actors appear to be engaged in the act of eating, a new roast duck had to be prepared for almost every take.
# Composer Gerald Fried actually created two main title themes for the movie. While most prints of the film features his arrangement of the French national anthem, "Marseillaise," another version opened with an original composition by Fried. The latter version was created for select European markets that might have taken offense at the anthem's use in a film so critical of France's military leadership.
# Stanley Kubrick's numerous fluid tracking shots required that the trenches be two feet wider than the original World War I trenches - six feet as opposed to four feet - to allow room for the roving camera dollies.
# The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.
# Special effects supervisor Erwin Lange was forced to appear before a special German government commission before he was permitted to acquire the huge number of explosives needed for the battle scenes. Over a ton of explosives were discharged in the first week of filming alone.
# The French authorities considered the film an offense to the honor of their army and prohibited its exhibition in France until 1975. In Germany the film wasn't allowed to be shown for a couple of years after its release to avoid any strain in relations with France.
# Col. Dax's headquarters was placed in a severely damaged building, which looks like it was hit by shells. This set was actually the old castle of Schleissheim, opposite the-18th century castle, used as the set for the court martial, etc. During WWII the factories near Schleissheim were hit by an air raid. Some bombs fell on the old castle, causing heavy damage. So Col. Dax's headquarters were not set up by the film crew, they were actually damaged by war.
# Banned in Spain by the censorship under General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, for its anti-military message. It wasn't released until 1986, 11 years after Franco's death.