‘Paths of Glory’ and the Futile Horrors of Military Bureaucracy

‘Paths of Glory’ is one of the few true anti-war films due to its depiction of absurd and irrational bureaucracy

Cameron C.
7 min readMay 24, 2021
Screen Captured Still From Film

Paths of Glory is oftentimes overlooked in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography. Even a magnificent film can be overshadowed in a career of monumental movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Paths of Glory stands the test of time not only because of its masterful execution in front and behind the camera, but because it utilizes the main ingredient of an anti-war film to its fullest potential. That ingredient is showcasing the futile horrors of military bureaucracy and the barbaric irrationality of war.

The film centers around a completely irresponsible and suicidal mission to take Ant Hill ordered by General Mireau (George Macready). Once many of the men refuse to advance and end up retreating from no-man’s land — an area between friendly and enemy trenches constantly bombarded by artillery strikes, Mireau orders artillery strikes on friendly units because many did not leave the trenches to advance and many retreated once they recognized the mission was impossible. Mireau then randomly selects three men to stand trial for cowardice and are expected to be killed by a firing squad. Their commanding officer, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), defends the three soldiers in a court martial.

I wrote an article many months ago exploring a quote by French director and film critic François Truffaut, who claimed “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” He contributed the on-screen thrill of combat, camaraderie, appealing displays of violence and historical revisionism as ways anti-war films can be recruitment tools for the military and paint the military in a positive light. I initially agreed with Truffaut’s observation and thought even the most anti-war films had a jingoistic element to many of them.

Early in Paths of Glory, there’s a Steadicam sequence of Col. Dax crawling with his unit through no-man’s land which was an obvious inspiration of 1917. I was nervous Paths of Glory was going to commit the same mistake of showing the thrill of combat and appealing displays of violence that we’ve seen in countless other anti-war films. However, outside of that singular sequence, there’s no combat in the film. Paths of Glory is one of the very few films I think is truly an anti-war film due to its focus on the absurd bureaucracy of war and how that bureaucracy makes every soldiers’ goal — survival — more difficult to achieve.

There’s two other stories I’d compare to Paths of Glory in their explicit messaging of the absurdity of military bureaucracy. The film Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and the book Catch-22. Judgement at Nuremberg has a scene where Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) defends a physician, Ernst Yanning (Burt Lancaster), a member of the Nazi party who remained silent throughout the film and didn’t reject the Nazi Party taking power in Germany. Rolfe argues that America sold Hitler armaments and Winston Churchill praised Hitler. “Ernst Yanning’s guilt is the world’s guilt,” Rolfe concludes. I’ve used this example many times before in showcasing the absurdity of a single person being on trial for actions reciprocated by countless others.

In Catch-22 the entire premise of the book is based on the absurd bureaucracy of military life. The book follows John Yossarian, a bombardier who is upset when the military keeps raising the number of missions he must fly before he can return home. However, under the new rule called Catch-22, a man is considered insane if he willingly flies my combat missions, but if he makes a request to be relieved, he is proven sane, and therefore unable to be released.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop and Love the Bomb is another one of Kubrick’s three anti-war films. That secret ingredient is at the forefront of the film. The entire theme and premise of the movie is that the entirety of war is orchestrated and conducted by men in suits inside of a room. The film is shot only in interiors and satirizes the idea of war having ‘rules’ or an expectation to be conducted in a civilized manner when the act of war itself is not civilized. “There’s no fighting in the War Room!” is the famous quote from the film that encapsulates the absurd bureaucracy of war that will only lead to one inevitable outcome — mass death. The bureaucracy of war was built to be idiot-proof but it’s oftentimes operated only by idiots. It’s a movie about the rational vs the irrational, but taking place in a scenario that is built off an irrational foundation.

Another prominent anti-war film that is built off an irrational foundation is Platoon. The film follows a young soldier, Chris (Charlie Sheen) in the middle of the Vietnam war. Chris is caught in a battle of wills between two conflicting and rival sergeants, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Sgt. Barnes is the seasoned veteran that a lot of the more enthusiastic soldiers look up to and take orders from. However, his superior officer, Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) wants to earn the respect of the men under him and give the orders, but his incompetency prevents him from doing so. This causes another wrench to be thrown into the dilemma of the power dynamic between Sgt. Elias and Sgt. Barnes as Lt. Wolfe plays dumb after witnessing Sgt. Barnes murder of a fellow soldier. Ultimately, Lt. Wolfe’s incompetency allows the absurdity to go unchecked and unmitigated. He ultimately kills himself and many fellow soldiers as he fails to call an airstrike on the right coordinates.

In an irrational war started by a lie, you’d expect every soldier to be on the same side and same page with a common goal — to survive. The ultimate consequence of war is death — but it’s not the combat that gets many of the soldiers in Platoon killed, it’s the conflicting ideologies and egos of the battling sergeants. Their irrationality directly contributes to the ultimate consequence.

The irrationality in Paths of Glory comes during two scenes. The court martial scene and the climactic firing squad scene. In the court martial scene, Col. Dax makes good points and uses the same defense as Hans Rolfe. These three soldiers cannot be found guilty considering they did nothing different than the hundreds of other soldiers. Col. Dax brings up the real problem — the mission. However, the court doesn’t care and when the prosecution asks the soldiers questions, the soldiers are not allowed to give context or elaborate on their answers. It’s absurd and irrational that three randomly selected soldiers had their fate sealed before the court martial even began.

The second scene showcasing the absurdity of military bureaucracy and irrationality is one of the scenes prior to the soldiers’ execution. The three soldiers are bickering among themselves in a holding cell and dealing with their inevitable deaths. Tempers rise and one of the drunk soldiers gets punched in the face, falls down and hits his head. He’s essentially in a vegetative state. In a rational world, his execution is already completed, but for Mireau, whose commands are based on optics and career advancement, that’s not good enough. The soldier is propped up on a pole while still strapped in his stretcher. They pull on his cheek, waking him up enough to where he’s barely conscious enough to open his eyes and the three soldiers are subsequently executed by firing squad.

Shortly after, General Mireau is stricken when General Broulard announces he discovered Mireau attempted to call an artillery strike on his own men for refusing to advance and threatens to go to the public with the news. That’s the key here — the public. It’s the optics. His career is threatened by this. Mireau storms out of Broulard’s office upon hearing there will be an inquiry. Broulard then offers General Mireau’s job to Col. Dax.

“Don’t act surprised,” General Broulard says. “We all know you’ve been after Mireau’s job from the start… It would be a pity to lose your promotion before you even get it — a promotion you have so carefully planned for.” Once Col. Dax reveals he had no plans to achieve a promotion and was never operating with the goal of taking Mireau’s command, Broulard responds with “you really did want to save those men. You’re an idealist and I pity you.”

Catch-22 shares a very similar situation to Paths of Glory. In the book, Colonel Cathcart is obsessed with becoming a general and wants to be promoted more than anything in the world. He’s responsible for the number of missions being raised and volunteers his men for extremely dangerous missions. He’s tormented by maintaining his public image in the eyes of serving his career.

That’s the secret ingredient. These films and books that are explicit in their anti-war messaging focus on the characters acting in the best interest of their careers. It also shows that the ones pulling the strings are not the ones who see the horrors of war and are not expected to execute their plans.

All of these anti-war stories express a common goal shared by every soldier — survival. However, that common goal becomes more difficult to achieve when built on the irrationality of superiors operating with their careers in mind and the absurdity of military bureaucracy. These anti-war films are profound because of their exploration of these absurd factors outside of the combat of war.

Paths of Glory observes this common goal with a beautiful ending scene of Col. Dax looking through a window, witnessing a German girl singing for the soldiers’ entertainment. A room full of sexualization and laughs slowly turns to a quiet and tearful humming as they all find common ground. In this scene, there’s no longer an us vs them. There’s only the sudden realization they’re all human — pawns to absurd and irrational bureaucracy which makes their common goal more difficult to achieve. They’re equals, reflecting on the absurdity of countless deaths for a few feet of dirt or dying for the optics of a superior’s attempted career advancement. Upon witnessing this rare act of humanity in a world full of absurdity and irrationality, Col. Dax allows the men a few more minutes before they must return to the trenches.