As someone studying film in college right now, one of the things I’ve thought might be a good idea to do is to figure out directing styles. Each film director has his (or her) own style of shooting a film, directing actors, or even writing in addition to everything else. And there are two filmmakers whose work I feel that I can immediately recognize just by watching a minute or two of one of their films: John Ford and Stanley Kubrick. I’ve talked about Ford on “Reel Christianity” before, but not Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick, who started out as a photographer for LOOK Magazine and eventually became a groundbreaking filmmaker, gave his films a particular look to them. The unique way that his movies are shot and edited, it’s hard to explain, but even if you watch only a few of his movies, you might be able to recognize it. And that’s me saying that, me who has only seen three Kubrick-directed movies: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Dr. Strangelove”, and today’s film, “Paths of Glory”.
“Paths of Glory” takes place in 1916 during World War One, where Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is in charge of an army of French soldiers fighting against the Germans in the trenches. One of his superiors, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) has just assigned his men on a suicide mission, and one of Broulard’s subordinates, General Mireau (George Macready), who will be promoted if the mission is a success, tries to convince Dax to carry it out. Dax, of course, is very hesitant. But things start going wrong early on when Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), on a scouting mission, sends one of his men ahead of him. Drunk, Roget suddenly gets scared and throws a grenade, killing the scout.
Later, when the suicide mission is to be carried out, many of the soldiers refuse to leave the trenches, while those who do are killed. Mireau then commands for the French to fire on those in the trenches to make them leave, but the artillery commander refuses to do so unless orders are confirmed. They aren’t, and the mission is a failure. So Mireau tries to court-martial one hundred of the soldiers. Dax convinces him eventually to select one man from each of the three companies. The men are: Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), who Roget picked to keep him from telling about the scouting mission; Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), called by his commanding officer a “social undesirable”; and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel), who was picked at random despite having been cited for bravery in the past.
And as the court-martial proceeds, “Paths of Glory” turns from a war film into an antiwar, courtroom drama sort of film. Dax, who thinks the entire situation is ridiculous, defends the three men, and he makes it plain to the court that to convict and sentence the men would be a crime. But does that stop them? Nope, and pretty soon, the three men are sentenced to die by firing squad. While in jail, they are visited by a Catholic priest who hears their confession and tells them, “Death comes to us all.” But Arnaud won’t hear it.
ARNAUD: That’s really deep, “death comes to us all”. That really is deep. Say, Ferol, what’s the matter? Afraid your luck isn’t going to hold up? Well, look! (He holds up a container of alcohol.) This is my religion!
PRIEST: I understand your anguish, my son. But you must not let it harden your heart.
And as the priest and Colonel Paris try to convince him to confess, Arnaud starts shouting and eventually gets into a fight. He hurts his head in the process, going unconscious, and during the firing squad, he has to be woken up so that he can be put up straight on the mat he lays on before he and the two others are shot. And that’s exactly what happens: the three men, despite the absurdity of the trial, are shot and killed for cowardice.
And the film ends on a pretty dark tone. Dax refuses a promotion to Mireau’s position, now that Mireau is going to be investigated on for commanding open fire on his own men. Roget is never brought to justice, even after apologizing to Paris before he is shot. And in the final scene, the French soldiers are all together in a café listening to a young German woman singing a sad song, and the men start humming, singing, and even weeping as she does so before they have to go back to the battle. And most of the audience probably leaves “Paths of Glory” leaving a little hopeless, not just about war, but maybe even about people in general.
I guess the main point I feel led to make about “Paths of Glory” is the idea of fairness. It wasn’t fair that those French soldiers should have gone on a suicide mission just so one general could get a promotion. It wasn’t fair that Lt. Roget should have sent out a scout to protect his own life. It wasn’t fair that soldiers should have been court-martialed for not going on that suicide mission. It wasn’t fair that those three soldiers (especially Arnaud, in my opinion) should have been picked out of their companies to be court-martialed instead of anyone else. It wasn’t fair that even though the trial was absurd, those soldiers should die anyway. And it certainly wasn’t fair that after all that, all those other soldiers should go back to fight in the war.
Maybe that’s what “Paths of Glory” is trying to say: war is not fair. This incident especially, which was actually based on a true story that happened in World War One, doesn’t seem fair at all. And thinking about some of the great antiwar films ever made—like “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, or “Letters From Iwo Jima”—that seems to be a recurring theme, the idea that men shouldn’t have to go and sacrifice their own lives for the lives of other sinful people. Some may believe even that God is not fair, and I feel this is evidenced when Arnaud disowns the priest and his religion.
And as controversial as it may sound, I agree: God is not fair. I believe that if He was fair, I would not be alive, because I deserve to die for all the sins I’ve committed in my almost twenty years. But why am I still here? Because God is a generous God—He would do anything to save His children from eternal damnation. One parable in the Bible that Jesus tells demonstrates not only how we as Christians should be humble, but also how generous God is. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells about the landowner who went out seeking for servants to work his land. Some he found early in the day, some later—but he paid them all the same wages, no matter how long they worked. And many of us would probably agree with the servants who worked longer that day that this was not at all fair.
But what does the landowner say? “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (20:13-15) And the same idea applies to my Christian faith. Who am I to say I should get more of a reward in Heaven someday than another man, just because I may have followed Christ longer? First of all, we would both be on the same level, considering that we are both sinners. And second of all, why can’t God give however He wants? He may not be fair, but He is generous to those He loves.
My prayer for you is that you would realize God’s generous heart for you, that even though life may not seem fair, He still has incredible power to save you and bless you.