To fulfill a credit requirement for the religion/philosophy concentration of my bachelor's degree, I was able to take a particularly nifty little course: Philosophy and Film. The entire class consisted of watching 7 films over the course of the semester and writing a 1-page philosophical analysis of each. The first film was Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, based on true events and starring Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas. The film was excellent, and the class was a blast.
School: University of Southern Mississippi
Instructor: Professor Mullican
Date: June 3, 2021
Mortality, equality, duty—concepts so intertwined with war that a thorough discussion of that horrific topic cannot be achieved without careful examination of all three. Is war ever worth the price of death? Which class of people pays that price? Where lies the duty of a soldier faced with insurmountable odds and accountable to a corrupt regime? From opening sequence to final frame, the film Paths of Glory answers these questions through a decidedly anti-war and unabashedly empathetic lens.
The film’s first scene features two French generals, Mireau and Broulard, engaged in a shady “war politics” discussion while eating an elaborate meal in a comfortable environment. The sequence sets up the military upper echelon as the collective villain of the piece—an organization of conniving, well-to-do “gentlemen,” more concerned with political expediency than the lives of their inferiors, the soldiers actually fighting the battles.
The film then introduces these soldiers—everyday men, tired, beaten, and in some cases, broken—a sympathetic portrayal showcasing the full gamut of human emotion and illustrating the disparity between the elite commanders and their embattled subordinates. Initially torn between duty to his country and well-being of his men, the soldiers’ leader, Colonel Dax, soon becomes a voice against the hypocrisy of the military leaders, arguing for the lives of his troops over political posturing.
After Dax’s men fall back from an impossible attack on the enemy, an enraged Mireau orders the execution of three of Dax’s soldiers on ludicrous charges of cowardice. Although Dax lobbies tirelessly for his men’s release, he loses, and each of the condemned men comes to terms with his impending end in a heart-breaking way. Mireau ultimately receives his comeuppance, however—but only so Broulard and the rest of the French command can avoid their own political fallout. The war continues, and Dax is ordered to return with the rest of his troops to the front lines.
It is a grim conclusion that delivers a severe verdict: Not only is war worth less than the price of life, it is also unconscionably unfair and nothing short of sheer lunacy. But the final scene, which sees Dax’s damaged, boisterous, inebriated troops moved to tears by the singing of a frightened German peasant girl, offers a ray of hope, driving home the principle of universal equality: We may be different, but we are all human.
Kubrick, Stanley, dir. Paths of Glory. United Artists, 1957. Digital. MGM, 2010.
Smith, William G. Plato and Popcorn. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.