Stanley Kubrick was an incredibly influential filmmaker on Star Wars and in this column we’ve covered already covered 2001: A Space Odyssey, but today we’re setting our sights to a lesser known film of his called Paths of Glory. Paths of Glory is a 1957 World War I film starring Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou, and Blade Runner’s Joe Turkel, among many others. It tells the tale of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) and his company who are ordered to take “the Anthill.” In the heat of the attack, the commanding general is incensed at the cowardice of his men. His promotion hinges on the success of the assault. With little recourse left to him, he orders his artillery to fire on their own positions. When his men refuse that order and the attack ultimately fails completely, the general needs to hold someone responsible. Therefore, he has a man from each company chosen to be tried for cowardice and executed.
Their only defender is Colonel Dax, who finds the injustice of the whole thing too much to bear.
Just reading that, fans of Star Wars: The Clone Wars might instantly be reminded of a situation that occurred in the fourth season of the show. During the arc set on the planet in Umbara. General Pong Krell, thanks to his own ambitions, sends the clones to work on the impossible task of taking over the capital of Umbara. The Umbarans are a force as unseen and menacing as the enemy forces in Kubrick’s film, and Krell seems to be every bit as sadistic as the general in that film.
The person to bring sanity to the situation because of their actual care for the lives of their troops comes both in Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory and Captain Rex in The Clone Wars. They both serve as the moral center of their respective stories and we, as the audience, are able to watch our outrage expressed on screen through them. Though they both believe in the war and the sacrifices that might need to be made by the troops fighting it, neither Dax nor Rex want those soldiers to lose their lives needlessly and will do anything in their power to prevent it.
Unfortunately, they’re outranked by less sensible men, and that’s where the drama comes from. Kubrick understood in Paths of Glory and Dave Filoni and crew understood with this arc of The Clone Wars that injustice is difficult to watch. The audience feels the rage of this injustice viscerally, and that’s part of what makes Paths of Glory and the Umbara arc of The Clone Wars so good.
In Paths of Glory, Colonel Dax is able to lead a courtroom defense of his men, albeit ineffectively. His men are sentenced to death by firing squad for cowardice. Captain Rex is afforded no such opportunity at defense, and General Krell sentences Jesse and Fives to the same fate as the French soldiers of Paths of Glory. The firing squad scenes are tense moments in both the film and the show, but they diverge in outcome in a way that I’m grateful for.
Paths of Glory is a stunning film and perhaps one of Kubrick’s best. It is emotional and raw and never holds back any punches. It makes you disgusted by the corruption that can take place during a war, when innocent lives are on the line. The film serves as a stark reminder of the absurdity of ways people are willing to die for abstract ideas that they might not have any control over. It’s beautifully shot with long, uninterrupted takes through breathtaking scenes. It draws you in and doesn’t let you go, then brings you to an unexpected and emotional climax that shows that we’re all the same, no matter where we’re from. Thought it might seem to have a certain cognitive dissonance from the rest of the film, it is exactly what we need to bring tears to our eyes and understand what Kubrick was trying to tell us the whole time. Roger Ebert put it on his list of “Great Movies” and I agree with that designation. For fans of The Clone Wars, and specifically fans of Captain Rex and the clones themselves, this film is a must-see.
Paths of Glory was not rated by the MPAA, though it was rated PG in the United Kingdom. It’s an intense and visceral film, even though the battles only play a small part. I wouldn’t hesitate to watch it with older children if they’ll sit still for dramatic works.
Availability: Paths of Glory is widely available on DVD and Criterion Collection Blu-ray. It’s available for a modest rental fee on most streaming video platforms.