Still of Kirk Douglas in “Paths of Glory.” courtesy Bryna Production

“Paths of Glory” worth the revisit

The provocative anti-war film had a screening on campus hosted by the OCH, followed by a Q & A.

The Oklahoma Center for Humanities (OCH) organized a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film “Paths of Glory,” based on the Humphrey Cobb novel, followed by a discussion with OCH director and Dr. Sean Latham and WWI scholar Dr. David Davis. This film was chosen in coordination with the OCH’s 2018–19 theme “memory.” In the screening of “Paths of Glory” and through collective discussion, the audience was asked to contemplate how this film contributes to the American memory and perception of the First World War.

“Paths of Glory” centers on complicated dynamics in the corrupt French military during World War I. The 1935 novel was loosely based on real events. It tells the story of an impossible attack plan on a German trench position, the “Ant Hill.” Although this order was an effective death trap for the men, French soldiers were still ordered to execute it under the leadership of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). The ultimate failure of the attack was blamed on three battalions of soldiers that turned back or never left the trenches when presented with this futile mission. Three randomly selected men were put on trial for what the prosecution deems “cowardice in the face of the enemy” and ultimately sentenced to death by firing squad.

This film addresses major concerns with the motivations and values of war. Deemed one of the most powerful anti-war films in history, “Paths of Glory” asks viewers to consider unanswerable questions laid out in the discussion following the screening by Dr. Davis: “What would you kill for? What would you fight for? And most important, what are you willing to die for?”

These questions challenged the authority of the French government and military to such an extent that the film was not even shown in the country until the 1970s. The danger of challenging patriotism and national authority even extended to Spain, where the film was not shown until 1986, after the fall of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

The French army in “Paths of Glory” is plagued by self-serving and overly ambitious leaders, exemplified by the character General Mireau (George Macready), who orders the soldiers to futilely attack the “Ant Hill” on promise of a promotion. The film is unusual in its casting of protagonist and antagonist. “Paths of Glory” deals with corruption within the French army rather than framing the major conflict around fighting against the German enemy.

Dr. Latham described how this is achieved in a relatively non-violent imagining of war. There is only a single battle scene and the film “could almost be portrayed on the stage.” He pointed out that the audience never sees the enemy, reinforcing the emphasis on “military as a bureaucracy,” being driven by pride and ambition rather than legitimate international conflicts. Dr. Davis added that the title was derived from a Thomas Gray quote: “Paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Despite the considerably pessimistic outlook on war and its effects on humankind, the professors debated whether “Paths of Glory” ends on a note of optimism. After fighting in devastating battles and witnessing the execution of their fellow soldiers, they retreat to a bar where a young German woman sings a song in her native language. The men start by whistling and leering at the woman, but are moved to tears when she begins to sing. The song sung in German, Dr. Davis informed the crowd, was about German soldiers going to battle and being killed. This poignant scene closes out the film with a hint of empathy and a glimpse of humanity beyond the ruthlessness of war.

After discussing “Paths of Glory,” Dr. Davis discussed his own research and OCH’s theme of “memories.” American memories of WWI are much different than how later wars are memorialized. There is only one national monument to WWI in the country, in Kansas City. In this way, the collective impact of WWI is largely suppressed or ignored. This is also seen in the passage of the centennial of the armistice with little to no national media coverage, although TU did organize a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in honor of the centennial.

The OCH will continue to explore the theme of “memory” in upcoming events throughout the semester. These events include a “Night of Poetry” will Hai-Dang Phan on Feb. 28 and an exhibition entitled “Alternate Archives” hosted at Living Arts on March 8. This interactive display will explore how we choose what to save and how this forms our memories.

Post Author: Piper Prolago