I think we've probably all been there at one point or other: there's one character in a film who is so entirely loathsome that you want to burst right on in and shoot him there and then, never mind the aghast looks of the confused cast and the total collapse of reality/the time-space continuum/the universe. In my humble
opinion, no one deserves such a bizarre death as General Paul Mireau (George Macready) in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.
The year is 1916 and, eager to earn his third star, French General Mireau accepts the preposterous challenge of General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to storm an entrenched German stronghold; it's clearly a suicide mission. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) can see as much, and speaks his mind to his superior, although he bows to his seniority and follows orders (what a good man and soldier - I think he might be the good guy). Needless to say, the battle never progresses further than No Man's Land, and the French forces retreat back to the trenches. Furious at such insubordination, Mireau orders the bombardment of his own troops, however the system thwarts him - paper work is required first.
This is the one example of the system being represented in a good light. For the most part Kubrick offers his viewers nothing short of an attack on the military powers in the Great War, the idolatry of principle and politics being set in direct opposition to basic notions of humanity. Although it's a easy theme to follow it's not entirely one-dimensional. No, we never for a moment believe the three men randomly selected to face the charges of cowardice on behalf of their regiment are cowards. But, that's not to say we the audience aren't asked to consider what cowardice is. There are obvious examples, such as Lieutenant Roget's (Wayne Morris) general deportment throughout, and then more dubious instances, such as Major Saint-Auban's (Richard Anderson) inability to look the condemned soldiers in the eye.
The ideas of honour, pride and cowardice might not be so simple when considered throughout the film as a whole, but characteristics are seemingly portioned out in a neat and easily identifiable manner. Douglas is undoubtedly given the meatiest role, and does it justice, as Colonel Dax seeks to defend his men's honour, but again he is so overwhelmingly the 'good guy', with morals leaking out of every pore, I started to feel a harangued by all the points and meanings offered up. What saves his film from being tedious (aside from the obvious seriousness of the subject matter) is Kubrick's laudable economy in the scriptwriting (he having based in on Humphrey Cobb's novel). There are no wasted scenes or characters, which keeps the plot driving onwards, avoiding any stagnation, although again this makes everything a bit neat. War is certainly not neat.
All in all, this film treats some pretty big topics with impressive tact and a praiseworthy lack of sentimentality. I could say a lot about Kubrick's direction (mainly about the mobile nature of the filming, e.g. following Dax through the trenches) but it's pointless telling you if you haven't seen it. I wouldn't place this on a must see list for the general film viewer, but if you fancy yourself a Kubrick fan it's worth watching to see some early flashes of techniques he'll develop more in his later work.