Few movies affect me on an emotional level enough to stop and re-evaluate my own perspective in life. One of those films, is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. In life we try to justify what is fair through our own virtues. It’s is how we face the conequences of our actions that defines our integrity. In just eighty seven minutes, Kubrick tackles the topic of situational ethics and facing unfair consequences with perfection through the eyes of French soldiers in World War One.
Kubrick guides us through a series of narratives. Mireau, a General of a French battalion, is offered a chance to lead his men into a near impossible battle. After first refusing due to the sheer number estimated casualties, Mireau decides to take the challenge after he is offered a higher ranking position. His justification came from knowing that if his men were to succeed, France would be in a much better position in the War.
The main character, Colonial Dax (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus) is face with a decision to personally lead these men out of trench warfare and into the battlefield. Dax, following orders would stop at nothing to fulfill his duty. As a man of honor, he felt stepping away from the charge would be unjust. If there should be anyone lead his men to certain death in hopes of a victory, it should be him.
Once the order to attack the German forces was carried out, the ranking officers are directed to oversee all Soldier advancement until they have completed their objective. This proved futile however, as many of the men wouldn’t leave the trenches as the German army successfully defended their position. The commanding officers refused to follow General Mireau’s orders to continue the attack at all costs.
Accepting defeat was not in the best interest of the General. In order to make an example out of what he considered insubordination, Mireau sent three soldiers of different ranking positions to court marshal. The French army prosecutors took the position that because the men refused to follow through with orders and continue the advance, they should be put to death.
Col. Dax, after fulfilling his duty in battle, took to the defense of his men. He questioned of the true nature and fairness of the trial and argued his men were acting on instinct rather than directive. He set to prove their position was lost and the men had no choice but to retreat or die. Punishing the men with death for simply applying human instincts, rather than blindly following orders should be reconsidered.
As with all Kubrick films, perspective is heavily featured. The General Mireau is almost always being shown in a position of comfort. His actions come from a place of want and power. To the general, accomplishment is nobel and therefore justified. Col. Dax is portrayed in a position of virtue. Half of the film he is among the General’s comfort as a respected leader. Then, in the most powerful shot in the film, he is shown taking a long haunting walk through the trench before the siege as another soldier among the numbers preparing for death. To Dax, fulfilling his responsibilities with integrity is the only objective. No matter how difficult the task.
The soldiers are shown from a position of helplessness. They are always in a sumitustion of defense or impending doom. To these men, justification of their actions comes in the form of life and belief. One soldier confides in God, the other in family, and the third in drink and self pity. All of which symbolizes the personal and emotional differences of value and virtue among others when faced with death.
As we follow these characters, there are a few fundamental questions asked throughout. Should Mireau questioned the plan of attack before giving the order? Should Dax have addressed his concerns with his superiors earlier? Would the battle succeed if all the men actually followed the order as it was given? Depending on the the perspective of each character, we would likely receive a differ answer.
Although violence and war is not something I deal with in my own life, this film provides a perspective that nothing we face is inherently fair. We must be ready to face all consequences the world throws at us. We should also try and look at the perspective of others affected in our decision making. The means do not always justify the end. Striving to follow righteousness, even in the face of scrutiny and defeat should be our only goal.
In the end, the sentance carried out in the film may seem unfair. It certainly almost brought me to tears. To the officers carrying out the punishment, this is the consequence for what they consider defiance. As Christians, we are faced with tough decisions in the world every day as our secular life coincides with our spiritual life. We must hold fast to our morals as we face the hardships of this world, even when that path is not fair. Col. Dax proves not all paths of glory are an easy road. If we remember to stay faithful during hardship and remain true without selfish justification, we can find peace.
Paths of Glory, 1957, Runtime: 87 minutes