Cobbs novel had no title when it was finished, so the publisher held a contest. The winning entry came from the ninth stanza of the famous Thomas Gray poem of 1751 "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".
The book was a minor success when published in 1935, retelling the true-life affair of four French soldiers who were executed to set an example to the rest of the troops. The novel was adapted to the stage the same year by World War I veteran Sidney Howard. The play was a flop on Broadway because of its harsh anti-war scenes that alienated the audience. Nonetheless, Sidney Howard continued to believe in the relevance of the subject matter and thought, it should be made into a film, he wrote, "It seems to me that our motion picture industry must feel something of a sacred obligation to make the picture." Fulfilling Howards "sacred obligation", Stanley Kubrick decided to adapt it to the screen after he remembered reading the book when he was younger. Kubrick and his partners purchased the film rights from Cobbs widow for $10,000.
Paths of Glory is based loosely on the true story of four French soldiers, executed 1915 during World War I under General Geraud Reveilhac for failure to follow orders and rehabilitated in 1934. The novel is about the French execution of innocent men to strengthen others resolve to fight. The French Army did carry out military executions for cowardice, as did most of the other major participants, excluding the United States of America and Australia. The United States sentenced 24 soldiers to death for cowardice, but the sentences were never carried out. However, a significant point in the film is the practice of selecting individuals at random and executing them as a punishment for the sins of the whole group. This is similar to the Roman practice of decimation, which was rarely used by the French Army in World War I. A little known exception is the French decimation (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit) of the 10e Compagnie of 8 Battalion of the Regiment Mixte de Tirailleurs Algeriens. During the retreat, at the beginning of the war, these French-African soldiers refused an order to attack. They were shot on December 15, 1914, near Zillebeke in Flanders.
The film begins with a voiceover describing the trench warfare situation of World War I up to 1916. In a chateau, General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), a member of the French General Staff, asks his subordinate, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready), to send his division on a suicide mission to take a well-defended German position called the "Anthill." Mireau initially refuses, citing the impossibility of success and the danger to his beloved soldiers, but when Broulard mentions a potential promotion, Mireau quickly convinces himself the attack will succeed.
Mireau proceeds to walk through the trenches, asking several soldiers, "Ready to kill more Germans?" He throws a disturbed private (Fred Bell) out of the regiment for showing signs of shell shock, which Mireau considers simple cowardice. Mireau leaves the detailed planning of the attack to the 701s Regiment Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), despite Daxs protests that the only result of the attack will be to weaken the French Army with heavy losses for no benefit.
During a nighttime scouting mission prior to the attack, a drunken lieutenant named Roget (Wayne Morris) sends one of his two men ahead as a scout. Overcome by fear while waiting for the scouts return, he lobs a grenade and retreats. The other soldier—Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker)—finds the body of the scout, killed by the grenade. Having safely returned, he confronts Roget, but Roget denies any wrongdoing, and falsifies his report to Colonel Dax.
The next morning, the attack on the Anthill proceeds. Dax leads the first wave of soldiers over the top into no mans land under heavy fire, but the attack is a failure. None of the men reach the German trenches, and B Company refuse to leave their own trench after sustaining heavy casualties. Mireau, enraged, orders his artillery to open fire on them to force them onto the battlefield. The artillery commander refuses to fire on his own men without written confirmation of the order. Meanwhile, Dax returns to the trenches, and tries to rally B Company to join the battle, but as he climbs out of the trench, the body of a dead French soldier knocks him down.
To deflect blame for the failure, Mireau decides to court martial 100 of the soldiers for cowardice. Broulard convinces him to reduce the number to three, one from each company. Corporal Paris is chosen because his commanding officer, Roget, wishes to keep him from testifying about his actions in the scouting mission. Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is picked by his commanding officer because he is a "social undesirable." The last man, Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel), is chosen randomly by lot, despite having been cited for bravery twice previously.
Dax, who was a criminal defense lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men at their court-martial. The trial, however, is a farce. Dax protests the lack of a stenographic record, the lack of a formal written indictment, and the courts refusal to admit evidence that would support acquittal. In his closing statement, Dax challenges the courts authenticity, and requests mercy, saying, "Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime to haunt each of you till the day you die." Nonetheless, the three men are sentenced to death.
Captain Rousseau (John Stein), the artillery commander who had earlier refused Mireaus order to fire on his own men, arrives to tell Dax about the incident. Dax confronts Broulard as he is attending a ball with sworn statements by the witnesses attesting to Mireaus order to shell his own trenches, and tries to blackmail the General Staff into sparing his men. Broulard takes the statements but brusquely dismisses Dax.
The next morning, the three condemned men are led out into a courtyard, among soldiers from all three companies and senior officers. Arnaud, injured during a desperate outburst in prison, is carried out on a stretcher and tied to the execution post. A sobbing Ferol is blindfolded. Paris is offered a blindfold by Roget, but refuses. Roget, whom Dax has forced to lead the executions, meekly apologizes to Paris for what he has done, eliciting an ambiguous response. All three men are then shot and killed by the firing squad.
Following the execution, Broulard has breakfast with the gloating Mireau. Dax enters, invited by Broulard. Broulard then reveals that Mireau will be investigated for the order to fire on his own men. Mireau leaves angrily, protesting that he has been made a scapegoat. Broulard then blithely offers Mireaus command to Dax, assuming that Daxs attempts to stop the executions were a ploy to gain Mireaus job. Discovering that Dax is in fact sincere, Broulard angrily rebukes him for his idealism while a disgusted Dax calls Broulard a "degenerate, sadistic old man."
After the execution, some of Daxs soldiers are raucously partying at an inn. Their mood shifts as they listen to a captive German girl (Christiane Kubrick) sing a sentimental folk song. They are unaware that orders have come for them to return to the front. Dax lets the men enjoy a few minutes while his face hardens as he returns to his quarters.
Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, commanding officer, 701st Infantry Regiment
Ralph Meeker as Corporal Philippe Paris, 701st Infantry Regiment
Adolphe Menjou as Major General Georges Broulard, corps commander
George Macready as Brigadier General Paul Mireau, divisional commander
Wayne Morris as Lieutenant Roget, company commander, 701st Infantry Regiment
Richard Anderson as Major Saint-Auban, Mireaus ADC
Joe Turkel as Private Pierre Arnaud, 701st Infantry Regiment (credited as Joseph Turkel)
Christiane Kubrick as German Singer (credited as Susanne Christian)
Jerry Hausner as Cafe Proprietor
Peter Capell as President of the Court Martial (and narrator)
Emile Meyer as Father Dupree
Bert Freed as Staff Sergeant Boulanger, 701st Infantry Regiment
Kem Dibbs as Private Lejeune, 701st Infantry Regiment
Timothy Carey as Private Maurice Ferol, 701st Infantry Regiment
Fred Bell as Shell-Shocked Soldier
John Stein as Captain Rousseau, artillery battery commander
Harold Benedict as Captain Nichols, artillery liaison officer
James B. Harris as Soldier in Attack (uncredited)
Kubrick once said of his decision to make a war film: "One of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual or our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation. Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallise and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appeared forced or, even worse, false."
Although Kubricks previous film The Killing had failed at the box office, it had managed to land on several critical Top-Ten lists for the year. Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM, liked the film and hired Kubrick and Harris to develop film stories from MGMs slush pile of scripts and purchased novels. Finding nothing they liked, Kubrick remembered reading Cobbs book years before and suggested it as their next project. Schary strongly doubted the commercial success of the story, which had already been turned down by every other major studio.
After Schary was fired by MGM in a major shake-up, Kubrick and Harris managed to interest Kirk Douglas in a script version that Kubrick had done with Calder Willingham. United Artists agreed to back it with Douglas as the star.
Production took place entirely in Bavaria, Germany, especially at the Schleissheim Palace near Munich. Timothy Carey was fired during production. He was replaced in the scenes remaining to be shot with a double. The film cost slightly less than $1 million and just about broke even.
An early critical test of Kubricks obsession with control on the set came during the making of Paths of Glory. As recalled by Kirk Douglas:
He made the veteran actor Adolphe Menjou do the same scene 17 times. "That was my best reading." Menjou announced. "I think we can break for lunch now." It was well past the usual lunch time but Kubrick said he wanted another take. Menjou went into an absolute fury. In front of Douglas and the entire crew he blasted off on what he claimed was Kubricks dubious parentage, and made several other unprintable references to Kubricks relative greenness in the art of directing actors. Kubrick merely listened calmly, and, after Menjou had spluttered to an uncomplimentary conclusion, said quietly: "All right, lets try the scene once more." With utter docility, Menjou went back to work. "Stanley instinctively knew what to do," Douglas says.
The only female character in the film, the woman who sings "The Faithful Hussar", was portrayed by German actress Christiane Harlan (credited in the film as Susanne Christian). She and Kubrick later married; the couple remained together until he died in 1999.
The film was released in January 1958 and premiered in Munich and Los Angeles. The film was considered a modest box office success, though it did earn Kubrick much critical acclaim.
The release of the film and its showing in parts of Europe were controversial. Active and retired military personnel, offended by the way the French military was portrayed in the film, vehemently criticized it after its showing in Brussels (although the film was otherwise well received). Contrary to a persistent urban legend, the film was not banned in France; however, the French government placed enormous pressure on United Artists, the European distributor for the film, through diplomatic channels, to refrain from releasing the film. As a result, the film was not submitted to French censors, and was not shown in France until 1975, when moral codes had changed. In Germany, the film was not allowed to be shown for two years after its release to avoid any strain in relations with France. The film was also officially censored in Spain by the government of Francisco Franco for its anti-military content, and was not released in that country until 1986, 11 years after Francos death.
The film was nominated for a BAFTA Award under the category Best Film but lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film also won a Jussi Awards Diploma of merit. In 1959 the film was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award but ultimately lost. It won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.
On the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, producer James B. Harris states that the original script contained an alternative "happy ending". However, in order to preserve the integrity of the film, the ending was changed. Harris got this past distributors by sending the entire script, instead of merely sending the new ending, knowing that they would be too busy to read the entire script again. Once the distributors from United Artists viewed the film, they were very enthusiastic and left the film as it is.
The film holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 39 reviews. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert added this film to his "Great Movies" list on February 25, 2005. Gene Siskel, on a section of Siskel and Eberts at the Movies show regarding Stanley Kubrick films, declared Paths of Glory to be one of the all-time great films and "almost" as good as Kubricks Dr. Strangelove. In the 54 Best Legal Films of all-time, Paths of Glory received one vote.
David Simon, creator of critically acclaimed series The Wire (2002–08), has said that Paths of Glory was a key influence on the HBO crime drama. The influence of the film comes in its depiction of the tribulations of "middle management", in the form of Daxs unsuccessful attempt to protect his troops against the inhumane ambitions of his superiors, which in turn influenced The Wires depiction of various institutions acting against individuals.AFIs 100 Years...100 Movies—Nominated
AFIs 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)—Nominated
AFIs 10 Top 10—Nominated Courtroom Drama
In 1992, the film was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In October and November 2004 the film was shown at the London Film Festival by the British Film Institute. It was carefully remastered over a period of several years; the original film elements were found to be damaged. However, with the aid of several modern digital studios in Los Angeles the film was completely restored and remastered for modern cinema. In addition, Stanley Kubricks widow Christiane (who also appears in the closing scene as the German singer) made a guest appearance at the start of the performance.