C.J. Marshall: Significa: '... lead but to the grave'
"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
- Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
Recently, the Sayre Library held a showing of Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.
I had fully intended to be there at the library to watch the event with the rest of the folks who showed up, but alas, circumstances required I miss the proceedings. Fortunately, I have a copy of "Paths of Glory" in my collection, and so watched it at home on my big-screen TV in preparation for this week's column.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, "Paths of Glory" is set in France during the first World War. The film is based on a novel by the same name written by Humphrey Cobb, first published in 1935, which tells the true story of four French soldiers who were wrongly executed for cowardice in the face of battle.
The film begins with the General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjour) of the French General Staff requesting his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) to order his men to take a German-held section of land known as the "ant hill." At first Mireau protests, explaining that his men have suffered terrible losses from their years in the trenches, rendering them incapable of taking such a heavily fortified position. However, he quickly changes his mind when Broulard indicates he will be promoted if his men can take the ant hill.
When Mireau informs his field commander Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) about the attack, Dax protests, voicing the same reasons given earlier by Mireau to his superior. Mireau arrogantly informs Dax that the attack will commence the next day as planned, and he expects every French soldier under his command to "do his duty."
As expected, the attack goes very badly, with many of the French soldiers cut to pieces before they can get even half-way across the battleground to their destination. The survivors fall back and Mireau in a rage - and in a shameless attempt to save face - orders that a select group of men be tried and shot for cowardice. The men are selected, and a court-martial is quickly convened with Dax serving as the defending officer. Tragically, the proceedings are a farce, with Dax not being permitted to call any witnesses or present any evidence. The matter is railroaded through and the men are executed for a crime they did not commit, in a vainglorious attempt to set an example to the remaining soldiers that they are expected to carry out their orders, no matter how suicidal those orders might be.
"Paths of Glory" is a movie which will always remain relevant, no matter how old it gets. I highly commend the Sayre Library for providing such a culturally significant film for viewing to the community it serves. It is one of those films which actually needs to be viewed several times in order to fully comprehend the various messages it contains. The generals in the movie are depicted making their battle plans in comfortable quarters behind the lines, as they order their men who are living a miserable existence in the trenches to "do their duty" even to the point of needlessly throwing their lives away. Sadly, there have been examples in all militaries throughout the world - including the United States - in which being killed in action is the only acceptable reason for failure. Trouble is though, you'll notice that the generals who subscribe to such logic, never apply it to themselves.
C.J. Marshall is a writer and columnist for The Daily Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.