War produces the true natures of men: some lose their humanity altogether and become monsters, while others embrace a kind of moral courage that cannot be defined or explained. So it's astonishing that a considerably intellectual filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick could distill this principle in such a visceral way.
Make no mistake, Paths of Glory is a film of high concept and blinding idealism, but composed simply and without plot complication. It's World War I: Upon the orders of his superior officers, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) leads his entrenched regiment of the French Army into a battle to take "The Anthill", an impenetrable German stronghold. It's a suicide mission, and everyone knows it. Of course Dax protests that the attack would only weaken the French Army, but General Mireau (George Macready) does not care. Indeed, Mireau has made the same conclusion, only the promise of a juicy promotion (by the equally unscrupulous General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou)) and his own Machiavellian ambition have already persuaded him to command others to certain and purposeless death.
Unlike the amoral executives who command him, Dax does not lounge in extravagant mansions and eat gourmet meals with fine silver; he lives in the trenches with his men, a lawyer compelled by war to root in a festering wound of dirt and death dug by politicians who have never gazed upon a battlefield. As he dutifully proceeds to prepare the attack, fear abounds among the soldiers he leads, with deadly results.
It is here that the film begins to challenge how we define courage. We see Dax advance while hundreds of others die horrifically around him. Some do not leave their trenches, so intense is the firefight on the battlefield. A safe distance away, Mireau orders his artillery to fire upon their own army to force them out of the trenches. Meanwhile, without support, Dax falls back into the trenches in a rain of dead bodies without making it to the Anthill, unable to convince anyone else to climb back out with him into oblivion.
So galvanized is Mireau's rage at the prospect of losing his promotion that he demands one hundred men from the regiment be executed for cowardice. General Broulard convinces him to merely court martial three men chosen at random, and even allows Colonel Dax to defend them against the death penalty. The trial is a farce to say the least, and although the outcomes are sadly predictable, that doesn't mean the final journey we take with this movie is less than we can anticipate.
Paths of Glory is a technically perfect film. As the camera seamlessly glides through the twists and turns of grimy trenches, horror and fear visually unfold like flowing tapestries along a magnificent human hallway. That nature and realism dominate the production design does not make the lens any less subjective or the images of war in all its boundless evil less beautiful. The booming cacophony of the battle scene has a aural texture that damns us to imagine the true nightmare actual combat must be. The acting is superb as well, every actor delivering his best work, Kirk Douglas in particular; despite his inclination for ham and bravado, Douglas' characterization of Dax is intense yet authentic and anything but a caricature. Colonel Dax's ability to maintain composure while evincing contempt and moral outrage is a script requirement, but the horror sculpted upon Douglas' face when confronted with the evil of men and the spiritual burden revealed in his posture and gait are the work of an artist.
As I said, this would seem at the outset like a philosophical film crafted by a director who demands his audience intellectually grapple with the moral implications of what is provocative material to say the least. Perhaps it does accomplish that; certainly, if you watch this movie and fail to think about the message the film delivers, you are not only brain dead but morally bankrupt as well. But please watch the final scene, a brief coda after the main plot of the movie has concluded: An achingly beautiful German girl held as an enemy captive is made to sing before the rowdy French troops. As the war begets monsters, sometimes men of real courage are able to rediscover their own humanity. Any movie can make you think. But in that last moment, if you can see more than a singing peasant and weary soldiers, if you are able to hear more in the simple folk song than the lyrics, then you, like Dax, can discover that the only true path to glory is not in war or ambition, but in hope and innocence that sometimes may only be found in the most unlikely of places.