Recognized as Kubrick’s first masterpiece, “Paths of Glory (1957) explores the social stratification of war and the deeper conflict between leaders and the led. The film’s opening battle scenes were staged with a degree of cinematic control and severe beauty hitherto unimaginable in film, with the camera first tunneling through the trenches and then widening out on an immense, kinetic tableau of explosions and dying men. A different kind of battle is staged inside a nineteenth-century château: was as an extended struggle for power, played out on the chessboard-like marble floor: the man-made field of battle.
The later parts of the film examine the courts-martial of three soldiers who will be executed for cowardice as a symbolic gesture. The execution scene is presented with systematic coolness, pierced through by the spectacle of the condemned men, one insensible and tied to a stretcher, one crying and comforted by a priest, and one resigned and somber.
The film is based on the 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, which was inspired by a true story. Kubrick read the book as a child, and its deep sense of injustice at the fate of the soldiers persisted in his mind. It would become the first book the he optioned with producer James B. Harris. The writers Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, with Thompson contributing much of the dialogue. Kirk Douglas played the role of Colonel Dax, the commander who fights for his men and must confront idealism and disillusionment.