A mesmerising expose of war’s unseen atrocities.
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a searing and utterly relentless look at the intricacies of justice and power. Beneath its surface level of delicate and highly crafted conversations there bubbles a furious political anger of a kind we don’t often see in Kubrick.
Full Metal Jacket and Dr Strangelove are political movies, of course, but the former is a much more personal portrait of the horrors of war, while the latter mounts its attack with acidic satire. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, is an ambitious, top-down look at how persuasion and manipulation are the real weapons of power, not rifles.
In this respect it proves infinitely more horrifying than watching hordes of soldiers being torn to shreds by gunfire. The cold, detached manner in which human lives are weighed as percentage casualties, the General placing greater import on earning medals than the lives of his men…this is the bureaucracy of mass murder, and it is terrifyingly real.
There is an almost Kafkaesque quality in the way Paths of Glory portrays its characters as fruitlessly combating systems of power and law. The trial scene in particular is chilling to watch: a brutal cocktail of fear, misdirection and complete chance culminating in three men’s fate being awfully sealed.
Some war movies appeal to our sense of pathos by showing us the bloody reality of the front line and the trenches. They’re well within their right to do so: these are things which have to be seen to be fully comprehended for those who weren’t there.
But Paths of Glory is perhaps more horrifying than any of these movies in the way it reveals the unseen atrocities of war. It resists sentiment until its very last scene, in which one single moment of devastating emotional catharsis brings the movie to a rapturous and ambiguous end. I had to pick my jaw off the floor.
To me, this is Kubrick’s best film outside of 2001. It is not quite as visually daring and composed as many of his lauded classics, but Paths of Glory is sharp, nuanced, and economical, never putting a single foot out of line.