My sophomore year I’m sitting a few rows back to the far left in my Development of Western Civilization class, the hallmark requirement of an undergraduate degree at Providence College. Professor O’Malley, entrusted with the topic of World War I, asks the sleepy room of students, “Just muster a guess, when do you think the film Paths of Glory was released? Just a wild guess…” My hand shot up like Hermione Granger. As I finally came into O’Malley’s peripheral he called on me. “1957”, I said. O’Malley stepped back and put his hand on the podium in disbelief.
Paths of Glory has been one of my favorite films since it was introduced to me in 10th grade by Mr. Flanagan. Mr. Flanagan had a memorable approach to teaching, he peppered in humor with an underlying tone of sincerity. On the classic public school AV cart, Mr. Flanagan played a piece of dialogue delivered by the film’s star, Kirk Douglas. He opted to show it in slow motion so the class could delight at the pure majestic quality of Kirk Douglas’ intensity laden retort in sync with a wild hair flip. The toothy barrage of insults: “you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man, and you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again”, supplements the unhinging of Kirk’s hair and lower jaw. After numerous replays, Kirk Douglas’ hair flip in this seemingly unknown film became the stuff of legends in our class.
Just a few days ago Kirk Douglas celebrated his 100th birthday. Coincidently, the story in which Paths of Glory is based on, also takes place 100 years ago. In 1957, Kirk Douglas was a star. Stanley Kubrick was not. Therefore, after only one film with a professional cast on his list of credits, Kubrick could not finance Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas formed his own production company, Bryna Productions (named after his mother) because he genuinely enjoyed finding talent and giving the opportunity for the talent to flourish. Kirk Douglas admired Stanley Kubrick’s work in The Killing (1956), one year prior. Kirk Douglas secured the financial backing to Paths of Glory from United Artists by using his credibility as an established actor. However, the film was still a completely independent picture. Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick struck a five year deal, locking Kubrick in for 5 future pictures (one would turn out to be Spartacus (1960)).
Paths of Glory supplemented my education in two instances because it was lauded as a great depiction of trench warfare; Winston Churchill concurred. What is remarkable is that Paths of Glory had a minimal budget, a third of which was allocated for Kirk Douglas’ salary. The trenches were made in a field rented from a German farmer around Munich, Germany, despite the film’s setting being in France. What made the depiction of trench warfare notable and propelled it as a teaching tool for many educators is the touch of Stanley Kubrick.
Trenches were typically four feet wide but Kubrick made them six feet wide to accommodate his tracking shots. Kubrick’s claustrophobic low angle tracking shots of the film’s villain, General Mireau, walking through the trenches are brilliantly orchestrated. Kubrick sets the audience’s POV at an uncomfortable backward pace that nervously dodges out of the way of General Mireau’s menacing stride. This film does not require an insane amount of special effects to get its point across. Kubrick’s vision flanked by a supportive creative team is beyond sufficient.
The notion that Stanley Kubrick was an unrelenting auteur is debunked by his widow Christiane Kubrick. In a recent interview, Christiane remarks that Kubrick had chosen her for the final scene of Paths of Glory after he met her while she was doing TV in Germany. A native of Germany, Christiane said Kubrick was confident in sharing his doubts with his actors. He asked her what song would be appropriate for her to sing as a young German woman who is not a singer to a group of rowdy French soldiers.
She suggested a song similar to “Johnny Comes Marching Home”, called “Der treue Hussar” (“The Faithful Hussar”) from 1825. After singing it for Kubrick, Kubrick said, “That’s the one”. The ending of Paths of Glory is my favorite ending of any film I’ve seen to date. That improvisational quality of Christiane’s suggestion of that particular song is poignantly preserved. There is also a mirroring of the cyclical range of emotions with the audience and Kirk Douglas’ character. Each time I see it, the effect is not lessened because I’ve already seen it. I can remember being so surprised the first time I saw it because the way Kubrick sets it up is so well done. Christiane described Kubrick’s approach perfectly: it’s lyrical. That scene transcends the war and the film entirely and takes you into an ethereal bliss. As Christiane notes, the woman is not a singer and it does not matter if she is French or German, she is a mistreated woman. Paths of Glory for a few minutes can no longer be categorized as an anti-war film, or a film used as a teaching tool, it’s just a moment of raw humanity, and it’s glorious.