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Blog // Adaptability
January 11, 2007

Paths Of Glory

Paths of Glory is a shocking, tough and totally unromantic study in the futility of WWI trench warfare and the moral corrosion that sort of carnage can inflict, both on the soldiers in the trenches and the senior officers in charge of the strategy

Paths of Glory screened last night, as part of the Stanley Kubrick retrospective, here in Hong Kong. This 1957 film (review here and extended synopsis here) is frequently cited as one of the most important war films of all time.

Cinematically the film is interesting because of Kubrick’s use of long (almost relentlessly long) panning shots – along the trenches, during combat sequence and in the pivotal execution scene. There’s something very compelling about the way Kubrick uses extended focus (and sharp background detail and depth of field) to create tension and drama. So much of the story-telling and meaning-making comes from the way these scenes are cinematically crafted.

Paths of Glory is often called an anti-war film and whilst it is, more importantly, it is a film about the moral consequences of war and the burden of making life and death decisions. There’s a lot of genuine ugliness and evil, but also beauty, courage, longing for justice, and even humour. At its end, the film pulls us towards both hope and futility – the mark of a true tragedy.

There is a very thought-provoking interplay between religion, justice and forgiveness – which draws us into the way bureaucratic pragmatism can conflict with principles-based leadership in the political sphere. There’s also powerful contrast between Liberal Modernism and 19th century Romanticism.

Paths of Glory reminds us why the legal frameworks for warfare and justice matter so much and why, in our current age we tamper with them at grave risk to the foundations of social order. It is all too easy to assume goodwill exists in our fellow countrymen and that those in power will protect those who labour for them.

Paths of Glory also reminds us that in the not too distant past men, educated European men, would plan human sacrifice for personal gain and reward. If they did so in our recent past then whose to say they couldn’t again ini our near future?

“Maybe the attack against the Ant Hill was impossible. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been a little more daring, you might have taken it. Who knows? Why should we have to bear more criticism and failure than we have to?…These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division. There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die…You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”

Paths of Glory is a must-see film for anyone interested realistic treatments of war, conflict between opposing ethical ideas, and the way people in positions of leadership can set aside basic human respect for personal gain.

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