Paths of Glory (1957)

 

 

 

Director:    Stanley Kubrick.

Starring:    Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol), Suzanne Christian (German singer), Bert Freed.(Sgt. Boulanger).

French generals hide their own incompetence by declaring their own soldiers cowards, 1916

 

 

This is a war protest movie.  A French general orders an insanely suicidal charge.  Shows trench warfare, the terrible devastation caused by the new technology of the machine gun, and the disillusionment with war that later came to characterize an entire intellectual generation.

Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) approaches Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready) with plans for a fool-hardy offensive  -- to take the Ant Hill held by the Germans.  Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) tells Gen. Mireau that he does not think that the Ant Hill can be taken. This, however, does not discourage Gen. Mireau.  He simply put more pressure on Col. Dax to proclaim verbally that the hill will be taken. 

Of course, the offensive fails miserably.  None of the French troops even get close to the German lines.  It was not a matter of lack of bravery, but rather the power of the new machine guns that could stop attacks in their tracks. 

Now, the generals have to start Operation Cover Your Ass.  Gen. Mireau covers his ass by declaring that 100 French soldiers of the attacking unit should be executed as an example of what happens to cowards.  Gen. Dax is outraged by the suggestion that any of the men were cowards, much less that 100 men be picked to be executed. 

But Gen. Broulard is also interested in covering his ass.  So he approves the execution idea, even though the number has been whittled down to three.  Col. Dax, still outraged by the idea, asks to be the defense attorney for the soldiers. 

So the stage is set for the launching of a kangaroo court designed to protect the officers from their own mistakes by executing three ordinary soldiers.  Will Col. Dax be able to safe the innocent men or will Dax himself become a victim along with the three accused?

The movie catches the intellectual reaction to the horrors of World War I.  It was largely felt that thousands of young men's lives were just thrown away in vain attempts to fight trench warfare effectively.  A great deal of cynicism prevailed and listening to the French generals in their attempts to destroy three innocent soldiers seems to say Amen to this cynicism.  It was less the fault of the generals than the devastating effects of the machine guns, but certainly the generals' willingness to throw away men's lives for some sign of progress on the battlefield also played a role in the mounting casualty rates.

Kirk Douglas was always good at presenting righteous indignation, even if at times he goes a little over the top.  Adolph Menjou as the big generals does a good job in presenting a picture of a self-satisfied officer willing to sacrifice the innocent for the larger good (or rather his own larger good). 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

The British and French infantry men suffered very high casualties in World War I because of: futile attempts at frontal assaults and unimaginative maneuvers.

In 1917 there began a number of widespread mutinies among the British and French infantrymen.  This was especially true during the time of the Nivelle Offensive.

1916 (December)  --  Robert Nivelle took over the position of French Commander-in-Chef from Joseph Joffre.  Nivelle argued that one massive onslaught would bring the French victory in 48 hours. 

1917 (April 16)  --  the planned offensive was put into effect.  Some 1.2 million troops launched an assault from Royale to Reims on German positions along the Aisne river (in what became known as the Second Battle of the Aisne).  The Germans had learned of the plans and were ready for the attack. 

1917 (May 3)  --  the French 2nd Division refused to follow its orders to attack; soon the mutiny had spread throughout the army. From 30 to 40 thousand French troops engaged in a mutiny against their military leaders. 

1917 (May 9)  --  the offensive achieved little, the French suffered 187,000 casualties, and Nivelle was sacked. 

19171(May 16)  --  Nivelle was fired and replaced by the much more cautious Ptain.

The main burden of allied offensive efforts now fell upon the British Commonwealth forces and then the American Expeditionary Force. 

 

 

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