As the film opens, a narrator points out that extensive trench warfare has made successful attacks a matter of hundreds of yards and paid with hundreds of lives, illustrating the futility of war. Most of the generalsí discussions take place in rooms of extensive baroque design, perhaps suggesting their stagnant and archaic ways of thinking. Their first talk involves General Mireau accepting an impossible assignment so that he will be promoted. Although he tries to speak about how his menís lives are the most important things to him, his future actions reveal this to be empty rhetoric. The tracking shots through the trenches are beautifully executed as the general makes his way to Dax, spewing more inane Ďencouragementí as wounded soldiers pass in front of the cameraó"Ready to kill more Germans?" He has absolutely no regard for human suffering and knocks a shellshocked man down after becoming annoyed with his responses. This heartless behavior is being passed on to the lower officer who follows him around and talks about the "lower animal" instincts of the infantry. Furthermore, General Mireau reduces people to mere numerical statistics when carefully outlining the percentage of men who will be lost on the raid of the Anthill.
But incompetence is not restricted to just upper echelons of command as the night patrol sequence shows. As the soldiers sneak toward their objective, they are confronted by an interesting battlefield tableau, shrouded in darkness, in front of which two of the men fearfully wait. When flares fly overhead, the ground of this area is shown to be covered with dead bodies, confirming their worst fears. The leading officer then proceeds to kill one of his own men out of fright and sheer stupidity, but, of course, he is able to get away with this because of his greater rank. The next day, Dax walks through the trench before the attacks begins, and a tracking-in shot relays his point of view. The men are huddled tightly together along the sides of the trench as explosions occur regularly on the higher ground; itís a sad image of fearful men being led into slaughter against their will. Dax leads the men slowly across the terrain as a characteristic Kubrick tracking shot captures the cannon fire and fallen soldiers in long takes. When Dax goes back and attempts to lead the rest of his men, he is knocked back by a dead soldier while leaving the trench, and the cowardly officer from the night patrol sums up the situation: "itís impossible".
With the attack failed, the indignant General Mireau must find scapegoats and says itís not up to the men to decide whatís possible and what isnít. Clearly, he wants absolute control over his men since he feels they canít think for themselves. When Mireau is accused in the slightest way, he comments that his only fault is being a military man; perhaps the film is suggesting that he is an exemplary creation of the flawed military mindset and, consequently, a despicable human being. He also cannot tolerate any questioning of his will and tells Dax he will break him for defending the men at the court martial. General Broulard looks at the court martial as standard procedure and seems more concerned with his lunch schedule. The soldiers are interestingly framed during the trial, which is a complete mockery of justice. Their faces are prominent in the foreground while a very deep shot extends behind them where their partners in falsified crime can be seen sitting down. Some dark humor is mixed into their testimony as Ferol is questioned about why he retreated when only he and one other man were left; he eventually concedes, "Me and Myer...I knew we shoulda took Anthill." Similarly, Corporal Paris states that he was knocked unconscious during the battle, but he has no evidence, other than the "rather large cut on my head." Dax is the only one who seems to care these men are getting cheated out of their lives, and he gives a moving final statement about the lack of compassion and humanity present. But the trial was fixed from the start, and to illustrate this the film cuts directly from the court to an officer explaining to his men how the execution should proceed. In the prisoners' cell, the extremely bright light coming from a window emphasizes their trapped state and also provides for a stylishly shot series of punches exchanged when Arnaud and Paris scuffle. A final demonstration of Mireauís cruelty is the fact that he wants the nearly dead Arnaud conscious during the execution as if no punishment is bad enough for these innocent men.
Conflicting with the scenes in the cell are those of an elegant party Broulard is hosting. Dax manages to drag him away from this important engagement in order to discuss some unresolved issues of the trial. The general responds with incredible statements about how encouraging it is to watch a man die and how the troops must be disciplined like children. After Dax presents the depositions involving Mireauís mistake, Broulard takes them and returns to the party, and the execution proceeds forward. The menís walk to their execution stakes is a pitiful one with Arnaud unconscious, Paris resigned, and Ferol almost in hysterics. After they are shot, Mireau remarks that the "men died wonderfully", adding that it had a splendor to it. After being told he will be under investigation, Mireau claims heís the only completely innocent one in the whole affair, confirming the fact that he is a psychopath. He also proudly leaves proclaiming the fact that he is a soldier, again displaying how overly militaristic thinking can turn men into monsters. Broulard further insults Dax by suggesting his whole motive was wanting to be promoted, and the general then reviews his own actions and can find nothing wrong. The film suggests that the logistics of war makes men numb to death and suffering, even when they are not as obviously deranged as Mireau. In the final scene, Dax observes his men acting unruly in a tavern and begins to doubt his faith in them. However, as the German girl begins singing, the men become gradually overcome with emotion and quietly join in, showing that sympathy and compassion are lurking just beneath the surface of these trained soldiers. But the war rages on, and Dax and his company must soon return to the killing and insanity of the front.
The film suggests a much darker version of Grand Illusion with its treatment of internecine divisions and its call for a shared humanity. The way that the French generals are portrayed in the film, itís amazing that they actually came out on the winning side of the war. Paths of Glory was an important early success in Kubrickís illustrious career and still remains one of his best, most humanistic works.
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