For those with eyes to see, Kubrick was one of the most startling new directors anywhere by about 1955. He had made a race-track robbery film, The Killing (1956), in black-and-white and 83 minutes, for next to nothing. It was a film that prowled in and out of its own simple story; it was the work of a young master, hellaciously downbeat and devoid of sentiment. At the end, the precious money was just a snowstorm in the engine slipstream of a jet aircraft.
Among the people impressed were producer Dore Schary. Kubrick offered as his next project a novel, by Humphrey Cobb, based on an incident in the French Army of the First World War when some soldiers were executed for alleged cowardice to encourage the others. A script was done, written by Kubrick, the novelist Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, the great pulp novelist who had helped Kubrick on The Killing. They thought of Kirk Douglas for the lead role, Colonel Dax, the man who is appointed to defend the three soldiers in the forlorn court martial. Schary was very uneasy. Douglas pounced. He loved the script. He declared the picture would never make a dime but he'd do it for his production company, Bryna.
It was a very tough deal: the picture was budgeted at $850,000; Kirk got $350,000; Stanley got $25,000. No wonder cynics end up cynical. On the other hand, anyone who looks at the picture finds a work of such unrelieved bleakness that really Kirk Douglas was right. And he got it made. In hindsight, it is one of those aberrations that David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai won Best Picture, while Paths of Glory was never nominated. It was banned in France until 1974 - and it was also forbidden on the US Army-Air Force Motion Picture Circuit.
An attack is planned by two officers (played on ice by Adolphe Menjou and George Macready). They know it will fail. But an attack is necessary. Part of it will be led by Colonel Dax. The infantry assault is remarkable not just for its wasteland trench sites - a piece of German land prepared and degraded by Kubrick with loving detail - but for the extraordinary, doomed tracking shots which are less heroic than insane. The battle sequence is still among the greatest examples of filmed combat.
But what follows is the real horror - the need to find scapegoats for the failed assault and the selection of three soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Wayne Morris and Timothy Carey) and the futility of all attempts to save them from a firing squad. It's clear that Kubrick and Douglas feared that their movie might be too dispiriting, too merciless in its horrified view of humankind in uniform. In fact, I think even in 1957 and certainly now, there is an audacious stylistic contrast between the wretched careerism of the officers and the implacable panache of the way it is shot. This is a great work of satire in which Kubrick's camera is as chillingly controlled as the prose style of Jonathan Swift.
Still, a concession was made to sentiment and so the film ends with a strange scene in which a battered and unskilled German girl sings to some exhausted troops and gradually rekindles their feelings so that they join in her song. I don't think the scene works properly, but the attempt is understandable - and all the more so when you know that Kubrick would end up marrying the girl he cast, Susanne Christian. It is, if you like, a Renoir moment tacked on to a Kubrick film, and I fear that Kubrick could never quite sustain Renoir's faith in ordinary human beings. But the power of Paths of Glory lies elsewhere - in the appalled vision that war is far too important or deadly to be entrusted to the vermin who fight it.
'Paths of Glory' (PG) is re-issued on FridayReuse content