Libraries of books have been written about World War I. Historians still debate why the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie resulted in a global war between countries that didn’t have any interests in the Balkans. They argue over why the generals of Great Britain, France, and Germany made the same mistakes over and over again between 1914 and 1918. Others argues that, actually, the generals didn’t perform that badly at all given the circumstances of the time.
There is no way to answer these questions in a simple blog post. Rather, I want to briefly describe how Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) portrays The Great War, and to answer the question asked of every movie that portrays historical events, is it accurate? I’ll be honest. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in graduate school (while my main focus was medieval Europe, my secondary area of study was 20th-Century Europe). It is a great film full of excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and gripping drama. But for me, Paths of Glory is also the movie that most accurately capture the horrors of World War I.*
No movie is perfect. As with many historical movies, writers and directors take an event from here and an event from there, and put them together for dramatic effect. The result is something that is not literally true. However, it can be true to the spirit of the time. Indeed, it is not uncommon for historians to use pieces of historical evidence separated by small distances and small amounts of time to create an overall picture of a historical period. They just don’t present it as a cohesive narrative as filmmakers do. So, in Paths of Glory, we see a French commander ordering his own artillery to fire on his own troops, and we see privates randomly (and not so randomly) chosen for execution as punishment for an entire unit. Events like these did occur. They were rare (or perhaps even unique), but they are definitely within the realm of historical fact. That is, while the events portrayed in the movie are not “exactly what actually happened”, they are not affronts to the truth either.
This brings me to what Paths of Glory does very well from the perspective of portraying historical events. Kubrick and the cinematographer Georg Krause, accurately captured the visual look of the trenches, of no man’s land, and of the palaces where the generals lived. And most importantly, the movie accurately captures the behavior of the officers. We see an officer berate a soldier suffering from shell-shock. The officer claims that no such thing exists and that the soldier is merely a coward. We see suicidal attacks ordered by officers who dispassionately spout statistics and time-tables to show how logical the attack is and how certain it is to succeed. And we see officers oblivious to the realities of front lines. They have no real idea what is going on. Whether this ignorance is willful or a sign of their lack of competence depends on the individual officer. However, to the soldiers who lived in the trenches and were ordered to attack, it didn’t matter – in the movie or in real life. By 1917 (about the time the events of the movie take place), one million French men had been killed. At the time, the entire male population of France was only 20 million. It is no wonder the novel the film is based on was unpopular in some quarters when it came out in 1935.
Paths of Glory is not a happy movie. It does not have a happy ending. But in addition to being a well-crafted tragedy, I think it accurately and powerfully captures the insanity of World War I. A lesson we should always remember.
*Please note, I didn’t footnote anything. Indeed, I wrote this mostly from memory. I take full responsibility for any factual errors. However, even if I’ve gotten a detail or two wrong, I’m very confident in my overall conclusions. For those who’d like to know more, or to see my sources as it were, here are two books that were very influential in shaping my view of WWI. I highly recommend them.