The best movies grow on you, so that they become so much larger in the mind than they could ever be on film. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory works in that way.
Set during the First World War, the heart of the film is about a miscarriage of justice. A French attack on an entrenched German position goes badly wrong. To save face, the general staff orders that three men be shot for cowardice. Three innocent men are chosen, and the noble Colonel Dax (tautly played by Kirk Douglas) works to save them from the firing squad.
For Kubrick, whose quiet obsession was the place of the individual in cold, often mechanistic worlds, the First World War was the perfect setting. The French high command, quartered miles from the front in a regal chateau, bandy about casualty figures and talk about the executions as a “perfect tonic” for morale. In the movie’s lone battle scene, cinema’s best until Spielberg stormed Omaha Beach, masses of anonymous soldiers are gunned down by an enemy we never even see. In this uniquely stupid war where millions were senselessly killed, what are we to make of the plight of three innocent men?
Kubrick understood that the best argument against injustice is to depict it plainly. The film runs just under an hour-and-a-half, with hardly a wasted frame, and is shot with the unvarnished clarity possible only in black-and-white. With each new indignity, each cruel turn of the plot, one can sense the righteous anger building behind the camera, kept in check only by Kubrick’s supreme discipline as a director. There are no deus ex machina or Hollywood contrivances to nourish our sympathies, hardly any music to heighten the drama.
But there is one notable exception to the latter rule—the haunting song that ends the film. Without its final scene, Paths of Glory would be a good film, but perhaps not a great one. It would be remembered for its stark photography, its strong anti-war stance, and perhaps for its place in Kubrick’s early oeuvre. But with the final scene, a statement on the injustice of abused authority turns into something at once more tragic and beautiful. Roger Ebert writes, “songs at the ends of dramas make us feel better… this song [is] a twist of Kubrick’s emotional knife.”
At the end of the film, a captured German girl is hauled before a raucous crowd of French soldiers. They have suffered much at the hands of the Germans, so they make lewd jokes and pelt insults at her. Forced to perform, she sings a little German folk tune, The Faithful Hussar. At first, jeers drown out her halting voice. But as she continues to sing the room grows still. The soldiers’ weathered faces soften, and their eyes gaze intently at the girl, but now with kindness, not malice. They do not know the words, so slowly, one by one, they hum along. Together their voices, dissonant but lovely, fill the room.
The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once summarized his films with a single unanswered question: “Why can’t people be happier together?” In its unflinching depiction of war, and its wrenching final scene, Paths of Glory deals with the same theme. Its message is this: we share a common humanity that cannot be extinguished by any amount of cruelty. And the great tragedy of it all is not that war destroys, but that, in spite of our love for each other, that we should go to war in the first place.