Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is, in essence, less a criticism of war than it is an invective against bureaucracy in its hypocrisy, obstinacy, and successive ineffectiveness. In a Wall Street Journal's review of this 1957 film, it is written,
Lord Acton's famous warning that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Here—in the midst of war, when the stakes are at their highest—Mr. Kubrick illustrates the consequences of unchecked ambition and mass complacency.
The motif of the uncaring expenditure of ground soldiers as the price of high-ranking officers' self-preservation and military gain is nothing new to war times. It is so often the inglorious who survive rather than those who pursue the "path of glory," ironic words taken from a line of the English poet Thomas Gray, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
1. Patriotism - Despite the apparent dangers and the futility of an attack upon an impregnable fortress called "Ant Hill" set during the 1916 Battle of Verdun, a colonel leads his men patriotically into the virtual "valley of death." When those men who obeyed their unreasonable orders and yet survive return, having failed at an impossible mission, the colonel is issued the order to report to his superiors, which he does. He is then instructed to select three men
2. Violence/Warfare - The battle at Verdun for Fort Douamont [the real name of "Ant Hill"] cost thousands of lives for no sensible reason since the mission was doomed from the beginning. Clearly, the commanders made the order to attack with no regard for the lives of the foot soldiers, casually having calculated that 55% would not return.
3. Humanity - Certainly, the closing scene in which a terrified German girl, captured by the French, is thrust before the raucous, beer-drinking soldiers and forced to sing. After she begins her poignant song, the cat-calls and whistles die down as they listen and some even join in, their battle-weary and bestial faces transforming into male sympathy. This scene indicates that even though these men have experienced the horrors of war and the deprivation and brutality of the trenches, they are redeemable and can return to the human race.
The real villains are the amoral, scheming, and self-serving commanders, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), who desires a promotion, and Corps Commander General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), who turn the proverbial "deaf-ear" to all the logical arguments of the valiant Colonel Dax, heroically played by the intense Kirk Douglas. Instead, their verbal jousts with each other are more important to them than the lives of the unfortunate three soldiers arbitrarily selected as the "traitors" placed before a firing squad as a cover-up the bureaucratic bumbling of their ruthless superiors.
4. The enemy - For the French soldiers the real enemy is the military bureaucracy which sends them on a 1916 "Charge of the Light Brigade," a mission destined to fail.