SK was born in New York in 1928. Became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine 1946-50. Made his first film in 1950. From 1974 SK has lived and worked in England in order to have complete independence from Hollywood. Since he insists on complete control over every aspect of his films he could not work for a major film studio. SK has had no direct experience of war (other than living through the Cold War of the late 1950s to the late 1980s yet he has made 4 films about war.


Films about war:

  • Fear and Desire (1953) about the assassination of a general by a lieutenant in order to seize a plane to escape
  • Paths of Glory (1957) about the court martial and execution of three French soldiers in WW1
  • Dr Strangelove (1964) about an accidental nuclear war between the US and the USSR
  • and his Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Some of his other well known films include:

  • Lolita (1962) based on a novel by Nabokov
  • Spartacus (1959) about a slave revolt in ancient Rome
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) about man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971) about violence in modern society, and
  • Barry Lyndon (1975) his historical drama and
  • The Shining (1980) his horror movie.


The Novel

Based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, which in turn was based on accounts in newspapers about compensation paid by the French government after the war for unjust executions of soldiers.

Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory (1935) (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).


Meaning of the Title

Ironic reference to the not-so-glorious "paths" (political not on the battle-field) taken by some officers for the fulfillment of their careers and ambitions, which results in enlisted men going to their graves. Quote from Thomas Gray's (1716-1771) "Elegy written in a country churchyard":

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


  • Kirk Douglas - Col. Dax
  • Ralph Meeker - Corporal Paris
  • Joseph Turkel - Pvt. Arnaud
  • Timothy Carey - Pvt. Ferol
  • Adolphe Menjou - Gen. Broulard
  • George Macready - Gen. Mireau
  • Wayne Morris - Lt. Roget
  • Richard Anderson - Maj. Saint-Auban
  • Emile Meyer - Priest

Three films deal with questions of justice: Bruce Beresford's "Breaker Morant" raised the moral problems of fighting a guerrilla war (oral orders, the taking of prisoners, non-combatants); Joseph Losey's "King and Country" the reluctance of the British army to recognise "shell shock"; and "Paths of Glory" the callous use of power (the capital court martial) for the advancement of officers within the army hierarchy.

The main characters include General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) who plans the attack, General Mireau (George Macready) who orders the shelling of his own men and insists on the court martial for cowardice, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who acts as the 3 men's defense lawyer, Lieutenant Roget an incompetent officer whose drunkeness leads to the death of one of his own men, Major Saint-Aubon the army chief prosecutor, and the three soldiers who are court martialled - Corporal Paris (picked because he witnessed Roget's mistake), Private Arnaud who was picked by lot, and Private Ferol (picked because he was a social undesirable).

It is set in France in late 1916 somewhere on the western front. In keeping with the strategy advocated by Grand-Maison ("l'attaque à l'outrance" - attack to the bitter end) General Brulard plans an attack on a fortress hill, the Anthill, in the middle of "no man's land" for the dubious reasons of publicity-seeking and career promotion. When the attack inevitably fails General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men in order to force them out of the trenches saying "if the little sweathearts won't face German bullets then they will face French bullets." Later he insists that 10 men from each regiment be tried (for "cowardice in the face of the enemy") and executed, but reluctantly settles for a symbolic one man from each group. According to traditional French practice each man is chosen by lot from his unit (some variation on this in film). General Staff under pressure to carry out executions because of pressure from newspapers and politicians for evidence of progress in war. Colonel Dax realises that the officers will not permit a fair trial. When he discovers General Mireau's orders to fire artillery on own men he uses this information to get back at him. Brulard interprets this to mean Dax is ambitious for Mireau's position and offers it to Dax who angrily refuses it.

The 3 soldiers are executed without murmur from their colleagues. This took place before widespread mutinies in the French army in 1917 which were a result of weariness with the war, anger at their incompetent leadership and the influence of the Russian Revolution.

Tabachnick argues that Cobb's warning of the dangers of the universal misuse of power in hierarchical organizations was "castrated" by the filmmaker Kubrick who cut out important scenes in order to blame a "wicked officer class" and inspire hope with the actions of a heroic officer (Dax):

Cobb is telling us something very simple but hard to face: the very fact of hierarchical organization makes it possible, even convenient, for us to act in an inhuman manner...

Cobb's warning about the potential misuses of hierarchy applies not just to World War I or the Third Reich, but to all situations in which one man is given control over the well-being of others. How many times have superiors failed to listen to wiser subordinates, or fired those whose only sin was to catch them out in an error or to oppose their will? How many subordinates have been willingly coerced into keeping quiet? How many times have chance or self-interest been allowed to decide issues needing objective judgment? How many times have we hidden behind our "roles" or our "orders" and acted inhumanely?

Perhaps because of the true unpalatability of Cobb's message, Kubrick and his writers... found it necessary to castrate it. Kubrick's film is a classic, but it is a different and lesser work of art than Cobb's novel... (pp. 301-3)


J.B. Duroselle, "The French Mutinies," History of the First World War, ed. Brig. Peter Young, vol. 5, no, 13, (London: Purnell, 1971), pp. 2133-41.

Stephen E. Tabachnick, "Afterword," to Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory (1935) (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), pp. 267-304.

J. Burgess, "The Anti-Militarism of Stanley Kubrick," Film Quarterly, Fall 1964, vol. XVIII, no. 1, pp. 4-11.

Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), "Paths of Glory," pp. 80-155.


  • Film opens with ironic rendition of French national anthem "La Marsaillaises" and voice over commentary (as in Dr S).
  • As in "All Quiet on the Western Front" American actors playing foreign, if not enemy, soldiers.
  • Is this an anti-war film like AQWF, or an anti-army, anti-hierarchy film?
  • SK argues that the real division which separates men is not national but one of class and status. In this case the leaders vs the led. War is seen as a continuation and intensification of civil class conflict. Contrasts made between the world of the senior officers (the 18th century chateau, a place of order and symmetry, elegance, decadence and order, home of the old nobility) with the trenches where the enlisted men are forced to live. Compare Renoir's nostalgia for ancien regime chivalry vs SK's denunciation of AR power structure and callousness towards ordinary soldiers).
  • SK's interest in symmetry and regularity. Note the geometrical shape of the courtroom. Like a chess board with human beings as pawns being moved about (SK's great love of chess - origins as a war game). Here the deliberate and selective killing of the military courtroom replaces the random killing of the unordered battlefield. The symmetry of the chateau's grounds in the execution scene. Regularities of nature uncaring even destructive of human life. Symmetry of trenches - long, narrow and confined.
  • The attitudes of the officers to war and to loss of life. War provides a "path" for the fulfillment of the careers and ambitions - the "path of glory." The generals cynically and scientifically calculate the numbers of expected casualties (personal ambition vs 8,000 men). More concerned with themselves and opinion of press and politicians than with the enlisted men's welfare. General Brulard says that the executed men died "wonderfully" (i.e. before the press photographers without causing a fuss).
  • Use of moving camera. Brilliant flowing camera shot following Mireau and Dax walking down trench duckboards on inspection tour. In the attack across no man's land the camera follows Dax to show his perspective. One critic says SK uses camera "unflinchingly like a weapon." Similar use of camera as a weapon in "Full Metal Jacket."
  • Recurrent image of men walking, pacing or dancing. All following some path, but where to?
  • Cockroach scene. On the eve of their execution Ferol says their lives are as meaningful as a cockroach's and kills it. Compare with rat scene in "King and Country."
  • SK's attitude to religion. Priest visits condemned men but challenged by Arnaud who calls religion a "drug" like alcohol. Execution scene like cruxifiction of Christ surrounded by two criminals. Priest urges men not to question the will of God.
  • Idea of "manhood" and "dying like a man". Sgt says to Paris "act like a man". Reminds him he has a wife and children - "how do you want to be remembered?"
  • Meaning of final scene. Initially the brutalised and exhausted soldiers mock and jeer a German girl (SK's wife in real life). Slowly they respond to her predicament - she is human like them and just as much a captive as they are. They then join in singing her song about lovers separated by war. Vulgarity of men vs ambition and ruthlessness of general officers. Dax disgusted with both.
  • Colonel Dax responds to General Mireaus's patriotic remarks with quote from Samuel Johnson that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel".
  • Execution scene. View over men's shoulders of squad with raised rifles. Compare with Goya's painting of the "Third of May". Purpose of random execution is "pour encourage les autres".
  • References to enlisted men and children or animals. Herd vs human instinct. Lower animals. Children who require discipline. Vulgarity of men vs civility of officers.
  • Idealism of Dax vs Machiavellianism of Brulard. Dax's confrontation with Brulard when he realises that the men have died for the sake of personal ambition. He denounces Brulard as a 'degenerate and sadistic old man" and says he is ashamed to be a member of the human race. The Machiavellian Brulard pities Dax's naivety, ignorance of the rules of the game and his reluctance to play by them.
  • Compare with "going over the top" in Weir's Gallipoli (1981).