One of this month’s World War One topics is a review of the film Paths of Glory (1957), which depicts a fictionalized battle between the French and the Germans. This battle shows the French attempt to take a German stronghold, named the Anthill. Paths of Glory is set in the third year of the First World War. The overall story line is that the 701st Regiment of the French army is tasked with taking the German stronghold, however it is generally considered a suicide mission by those tasked with handling it. The higher ups in the army, two Generals in particular, consider the potential losses acceptable. When the attack fails due to the Regiment not being able to advance much into no-mans-land three soldiers are picked to stand trial for cowardice. The trial finds the three soldiers guilty and they are then executed via firing squad.
There is a common theme that is seen throughout the film, patriotism, as you might expect of a WW1 film, however it isn’t shown in the best light. Paths of Glory tends to focus more on the downside of patriotism, i.e. what happens when it goes wrong? Also, what happens when it interacts with pride? We the audience aren’t shown who made the initial decision to attack the Anthill, but we are shown how the order is passed down in the final stages. We are introduced to General Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, who asks his subordinate to carry out the order. This subordinate is General Mireau, played by George Macready, who is in charge of the 701st Regiment. General Mireau is initially reluctant to carry out the order but when it is suggested that a successful attack would mean a promotion to the General Staff he is quickly seeing the positives of the attack. This is where a sense of patriotism is blended with General Mireau’s pride, he places his station above the wellbeing of his men.
The next stage we see is General Mireau passing on the order to Colonel Dax. Now whilst General Mireau is not someone the audience would empathise with Colonel Dax is our clear protagonist. Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, is clearly against the attack and fights it, however he is given a clear order and has no choice but to follow. It is during this time that we meet the three men to stand trial later in the film; Corporal Paris, Private Ferol and Private Arnaud. It is Corporal Paris that I wish to discuss first, he is tasked with carrying out a night-time scout mission with another soldier and his superior, Lieutenant Roget. Roget is shown to be quite drunk and scared. It is during this scout that Roget kills the unnamed soldier in fear, thinking him a German soldier, Roget goes on to cover up the death, claiming it was the soldiers own fault he died. Corporal Paris tries to fight against this, threatening to expose Roget, however that backfires when Roget points out that he has no proof and that their superiors would believe Roget over Paris. Although his actions are applaudable this event comes back to Paris is a bad way as it is Roget who picks out Paris to stand trial, in an attempt to further cover up his own misdoings.
The morning after this incident the attack on the Anthill takes place. As expected the attack fails. Whilst the French are pinned down by enemy fire General Mireau is back in safety, he considers the lack of offense by the French soldiers to be cowardice. He believes that they should willingly let themselves be cut down by Germans so that those behind them may advance. Mireau orders the French artillery to fire on their own men, to encourage them to move forward. They refuse, this is an important point that returns at the end of the film.
The decision to put three men on trial for cowardice was interesting to watch, General Mireau initially requested 100 men to be court martialled. General Broulard talks him down to three, Colonel Dax disagrees with any men being court martialled. It seems that Mireau just wanted a scapegoat for the failed attack as he was in charge. The trial itself is a farce, it is portrayed with the clear intention of angering the audience. The three men aren’t allowed to mount a defence and the questions they are asked are pointed towards making them out to be cowards. The trial is over fairly quickly although the decision takes some time. Whilst the three men are waiting to hear of their fate Colonel Dax tries everything he can to sway the decision. He learns of the command Mireau gave the artillery commander, to fire on his men and takes this information to General Broulard. It seems for a moment that Broulard may decide to spare the three men, however he doesn’t. Colonel Dax gives Lieutenant Roget the charge of commanding the execution, which he tries to refuse. Roget attempts to apologise to Paris before the execution but is rebuffed.
After the execution we see the surviving men of the 701st Regiment enjoying themselves in a bar when a female German captive is brought out as entertainment. Initially the men react loudly, jeering at the girl, however once she starts to sing they quieten. She sings The Faithful Hussar, a song about a soldier during a war. This song obviously resonates with the men in the bar and their reactions are clear, they hum the tune with the girl and several even start crying. This scene stands out from the rest of the film as it shows how even in the midst of war, after all of the horrible decisions had been made they are not all dehumanised by the fighting. This realisation stops Colonel Dax from entering the bar, he had just been informed that they were all to go back to the front and he wanted to give his men a few more minutes before informing them.
Paths of Glory is an excellent film that shows the reality of war and of the consequences of the decisions made by those in charge. The reactions of those at the time of release show the impact this film had. It was banned in France from its release due to its apparent slander against French honour and it was briefly banned from American military bases. Despite this Winston Churchill praised its authenticity in regards to the battle scenes. Overall Paths of Glory is a very emotional film that takes the audience into the depths of World War One, showing them how brutal war can be and how much influence one mans’ pride can have on so many people.