Almost one hundred years later the concept of that static war of the trenches that was the Western front of World War I is almost unfathomable. After the French army stopped the German offensive at the Battle of the Marne, the French and British armies faced the Germans in a line of trenches that stretched from Belgium to Switzerland. About a quarter of France was occupied for four years in that time. The casualties ran into the millions in that stalemate that gains were only measured in meters.
It was always just one more offensive over the top charging into automatic weapon fire that would break the other guy. Just such an offensive was planned one day in 1916 against a German stronghold dubbed the ant hill.
General George MacReady, promised a promotion by his superior Adolphe Menjou, orders a beaten and tired battalion to charge the ant hill. The attack flops and MacReady looks for scapegoats. He decides after coming down from shooting 100 men to a selected three drawn by lot. The unlucky three are Joseph Turkel, Ralph Meeker, and Timothy Carey.
The commander of the three Kirk Douglas asks to serve as their counsel and he makes a good show of it at the kangaroo court martial they have. But the fix is definitely in.
Except for Spartacus, Kirk Douglas rarely plays straight up heroic types in film. Even his good guys have an edge to them, a dark side. But as Colonel Dax, Douglas is at his most heroic. He may be one dimensional here, but he's great. Especially in that last scene with Adolphe Menjou when he tells the man off in no uncertain terms, mainly because Menjou has misread Douglas's motives.
Menjou and Macready portray two different military types. The arrogant MacReady as versus the very sly Menjou. Not very admirable either of them. Menjou was not very popular at this time in Hollywood because of the blacklist. He favored it very much, his politics were of the extreme right wing. Nevertheless he was a brilliant actor and never better than in this film, one of his last.
The enlisted men are a good bunch also. They're kind of like the posse in The Oxbow Incident, just an ordinary group who become ennobled in martyrdom as they go to the firing squad for the sake of politics.
Paths of Glory is one of the best anti-war films ever made. It ranks right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front which showed the war from the German point of view. Both will be classics 200, 300, a thousand years from now...
BRUCE'S RATING: 10 out of 10
MY RATING: 9 out of 10