Paths of Glory is a 1957 masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick that demonstrates one of the most unrecognized horrors of combat: incompetent leadership. A little known fact about early 20th century combat and much of warfare before then is that soldiers were often executed were they to show cowardice or abandon the army. This was not merely a practice of less civilized nations: it was prevalent in most armies, from the French to the American to the German.
The film takes place in WWI, a war where all options were still on the table. Chemical warfare was the norm and vicious bloody attacks took place daily with the front line rarely moving more than a few yards. The film follows the French army as General Mireau is commanded by his superior officer, General Georges Broulard, to attempt a suicide mission to take out a heavily fortified German position. Mireau is initially apprehensive about the attack’s success, but when a promotion is mentioned, Mireau is immediately determined to win. Mireau proceeds to talk to soldiers, asking them if they are ready to kill more Germans. He shows a high insensitivity to death and, when confronted with a shell-shocked soldier, calls the soldier a coward.
The attacks goes forward as planned, but under heavy gunfire, the French are unable to take the German positon. Frustrated by their “cowardice,” Mireau orders the artillery to fire on his own troops. The Artillery commander refuses and the attack fails. In order to avoid blame for the dismal offensive, Mireau decides to court martial 100 soldiers for cowardice. The number is eventually reduced to a total of three, but each of these men are chosen at random. None of the men individually had done anything wrong. If anything, they were exceptional soldiers. But for one reason or another, they were set to be executed.
Among the officers, there were constant power struggles to move up the hierarchy of command. Insubordination, against even the most ridiculous of orders, could result in execution. Soldiers sometimes had more to fear from their own commanding officers than the enemy’s bullets. The horrors represented within Paths of Glory are very reminiscent to the incompetent leadership in the Union Army early on in the Civil War. The men in charge were not the most capable, but rather those with the most money, the most connections, and the most willing to step on the faces of others to get what they wanted.
The film also presents a very moving image of how the men faced death knowing that they were dying for nothing. One man is heavily incapacitated after having been struck in the head. He is executed with the others while tied to a stretcher. One man is crying hysterically , incoherent in his misery. The last is solemn, but silent. These men who were willing to support their country to the last were forced to serve as a pitiful example of what happened to “cowards” in this broken war machine.