Dust to dust: Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)

A colonel is bravely walking through the trenches. Men are curled up against the walls. Some of them watch the skies since it might be the last thing they see. Most of them are mindlessly staring at the ground. Every single one of them is covered in dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s time to win a Pyrrhic victory.

Kubrick's scene of walking through the trenches uses space to illustrate the confinement.
Kubrick’s scene of walking through the trenches uses space to illustrate the confinement.

An American anti-war film Paths of Glory (1957), directed by no one other than Stanley Kubrick, tells the story of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack and then face charges of cowardice in a court-martial. Kirk Douglas plays the role of Colonel Dax who lead the first wave of soldiers into no man’s land. General Mireau, who was promised a promotion if he won over the heavily defended German position called the Anthill, demands one hundred soldiers be put on trial for cowardice. However, General Broulard, a member of the French General Staff, persuades him to reduce the number to three, one from each company. But does it matter to those that shall be killed what the number is? Needless to say, the film was banned in Spain under Franco’s dictatorship, but also in France for its negative portrayal of the French army.

Corporal Paris: See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead, and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.
Private Ferol: [smashes the roach] Now you’ve got the edge on him!

This isn’t a happy story. I do have to admit, I was waiting for some deux ex machina to save the soldiers. You are trained by modern blockbusters to expect a sudden relief. But there wasn’t one. There is no consolation in war, only the harsh reality. Even Kubrick intended a happier ending for box-office reasons but gave up on that. The issue was that the studio might object, so they just delivered the final script without writing a memo about the changes, believing that nobody will actually read the script. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Douglas allegedly told Kubrick: “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.” And it was true, it didn’t have much success at the box office, but in the last couple of decades, it has been considered a masterpiece.

Dax leading his men into no man's land. The shooting of the assault took a month to film.
Dax leading his men into no man’s land. The shooting of the attack took a month to film.

Even though it doesn’t look like a Kubrick film at first, you are soon going to experience wonderful scenes and framings, especially illustrated by the famous shot of walking through the trenches. For the construction of the battlefield, Kubrick hired 5000 square yards of land, and it took him a month to film the initial assault. There is a huge difference between life in the trenches and life in the command. Trenches are filled with dust, mud, and despair, while high-ranking officers enjoy meals and aristocratic balls at a nearby chateau. The castle seems so empty and huge, especially when there’s a trial happening there, confining its characters not with the lack of space but the vastness of it. Kubrick is picturing the emptiness surrounding the officers on trial, contrasted with the cramped life in trenches, suffocating the audience as well. The musical score by Gerald Fried also creates a sense of realism. There are war-like drums being played at the beginning of the film and during the execution. But the lack of score creates an atmosphere as well. When you are ordered to win an impossible battle, there is no need for nothing more than silence, adding to the sheer rawness of the situation.

Kubrick uses space to confine his characters. In tight and cramped trenches, there's nowhere to run, but vast and empty space creates confinement as well.
Kubrick uses space to confine his characters. In tight and cramped trenches, there’s nowhere to run, but vast and empty space creates confinement as well.
The prosecuted soldiers are occupying only a portion of the frame, being engulfed with space that acts as a prison.

Kubrick focuses on selecting the guilty ones at random. Various armies have carried out military executions for cowardice, and it was a regular practice for the French army and most of the other major participants in the war. This film is not here to raise ethical issues whether a man should suffer the consequences of his comrades. We are not here to debate whether a random individual can represent a sin of the whole group. We’re here to see it happen, and there’s nothing we can do about it. War isn’t a nice place with reliefs and happy endings. Even if it may be a happy one in the end, thousands of people had to give their lives for a higher purpose. There’s a scene in which Colonel Dax peaks into a tavern. The men are staring at a young captured German girl. She is forced to perform. She is a prisoner, but so are they. After all, no one can run away from this hell.

The tavern scene uses close-ups to show the feelings of each individual soldier, singing in unison.
The tavern scene uses close-ups to show the feelings of each individual soldier, singing in unison.

She starts singing The Faithful Hussar, a sentimental German folk song. The room is silent. Soldiers don’t know the lyrics and don’t speak German, but have heard the music before. This is an anti-climax compared to the famous scene from Casablanca (1942) when rebels sing La Marseillaise proudly, right next to the Germans, a powerful scene involving extras who were real-life refugees singing their hearts out against the cruel regime. But here, a country girl sings a love song. It does involve a soldier and his sweetheart, but nobody knows that. And it doesn’t matter. They start humming because they know the music. A silent room transforms into an impromptu a cappella orchestra. Kubrick shows each face in close-ups and for the first time, we see individuals, not an army. In those couple of minutes, there is no war outside. Dax listens to his regiment humming inside. He receives the orders to move his men back to the front immediately. “Well give the men a few minutes more, Sergeant” he says. After all, death is going nowhere.



Duncan, Paul (2003). Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films. Taschen GmbH.

Howard, James (1999). Stanley Kubrick Companion. Batsford.

Kagan, Norman (2000). The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Continuum.

Kelly, Andrew (1993). The brutality of military incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957). Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 13 (2): 215–227

Kelly, A. (2011). Cinema and the Great War. Routledge.

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