For the fifth feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s the Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema, we present Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. The film was originally banned in both France and Germany for its incendiary indictment of hegemonic military authority during WWI. It was also Kubrick’s first critical and commercial success and effectively opened the floodgates for his future classics.
To get you prepped, we reached out to noted Kubrick scholar James Naremore for a few thoughts on the film. We also unearthed a riveting, unpublished interview with James B. Harris, who was Kubrick’s creative partner for over a decade and produced The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Lolita.
—Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
JAMES NAREMORE – AUTHOR, ON KUBRICK
Loosely based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel about an actual incident in World War I, Paths of Glory is everywhere marked by Stanley Kubrick’s recurring themes and techniques: a fascination with the underlying absurdity of rational planning, an interest in the grotesque, and an ability to make a realistic world seem strange. As in Kubrick’s other war movies, the enemy is mostly invisible. Here, its only visible representative is a female German captive, innocently played by Kubrick’s future wife, Susanne Christian. The real war is internecine. Near the beginning of the film, in an elegantly choreographed sequence, two French generals stroll around a baroque drawing room while discussing an assault on a meaningless target called “the Ant Hill.” It’s obvious that something awful is going to happen to their troops. Soon, the horror advances toward us with geometric precision, in a series of mesmerizing, wide-angle tracking shots leading straight to death. The gut-wrenching climax, photographed against the background of the Schleissheim Palace outside Munich, Germany, functions almost like an illustration of Walter Benjamin’s argument that every achievement of human culture is also a monument to barbarism.
Apparently there was another kind of warfare between Kubrick and producer-star Kirk Douglas, who, in his autobiography, calls Kubrick a “talented shit.” Douglas claims that he had to angrily insist on the picture’s unhappy, historically accurate ending. Whatever the case, he also made sure that the character he plays was built up into one of the most sympathetic and courageous protagonists in any Kubrick movie (to find a similar character in a Kubrick picture see Spartacus, which Douglas also produced). The tension between star and director was nevertheless productive: Paths of Glory is a dark, emotionally powerful film in which Douglas’s passionate humanism tempers Kubrick’s harsh, traumatic view of European history.
JAMES B. HARRIS – PRODUCER(The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita)
The Friday night Paths of Glory opened in 1957, it was playing at only one theater in LA, down on Wilshire. Stanley and I decided to see it with an audience. We called the box office and asked, “What time’s the late show?” They said: “What time can you get down here?”
We were the only people in the whole city who’d wanted to know. By the time we arrived there were, at most, six other people waiting to see it. When it was over they were dead silent. They stared and shuffled out. I’m always gratified these days when a good crowd shows up for Paths of Glory. Even so, I have to laugh: “Where were you guys 50 years ago?”
Stanley had a theory that the less you said about a picture, the better. Let the picture speak for itself. It’s the old T.S. Eliot thing: “If I could have said it any other way, I would have.” As he got bigger and bigger, Stanley stopped giving interviews altogether. Back in the 1950s, people wrote down what you said—and if you were misquoted, you couldn’t prove it. Even these days, with everything recorded on audio, there’s another problem—often you’ll say something about which you later have second thoughts. You say things you haven’t thought out, and you dispel the magic in the bargain.
Look at the diversity of Stanley’s work: Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange—they’re all so different, and they’re all so good. You wonder: What makes him tick? But he didn’t want people to know what makes him tick. It only dispels the magic if you discover he’s an everyday guy.
He was very different from what people imagine, after they see his work. They seem to expect a variation of Orson Welles: deep, strange, and full of darkness, like you’re going to have to cut through all these webs. Stanley had his little eccentricities, but on a daily basis he was down-to-Earth. We used to play the stock market. Even if we were in LA, we’d go to the Merrill Lynch office at 6:30 in the morning, because it was 9:30 in New York and we’d be day traders, buying and selling. We’d follow sports. Later, he was very devoted to his children.
We traveled and promoted The Killing when it opened in New York—touring at the bottom of a double-bill, with Bandito, starring Robert Mitchum. It got good reviews. Time magazine even did a story on Stanley and I, and listed The Killing in their “Current & Choice” column for weeks and weeks—comparing us favorably to Rififi. Around this time, Stanley told me, “There’s a book I read when I was 14 years old and have never forgotten. Let’s see about getting the film rights.” I found a copy at the public library, read it right away, and agreed with him: “This is terrific!” Something very different from The Killing—an antiwar story: Paths of Glory, by Humphrey Cobb. We shopped it around without a star and got nothing but complaints. "No women in the picture. It’s anti-war." What, do you want us to glorify war? Then, what happens: We get a call from Kirk Douglas. He’s a fan of The Killing, and we’re back in business.
I have only positive memories about Kirk. He made well over a dozen big films before we ever came along; he had a healthy right to his ego. In his eyes, we were two kids and he did us an enormous favor by consenting to play the lead in Paths of Glory, threatening UA that he would cancel their next picture, The Vikings, if they didn’t make Paths. Bear in mind, he also turned 40 while we were making that picture. Stanley and I were both 28. His attitude toward us was fatherly. In any disagreement, he was Dad.
At one point in the production, Time magazine asked to do an article on Kirk and our work with him. Of course, I said yes. I was young enough to believe it was a great honor, one you don’t question—but rather than be excited, Kirk took me aside and tore me a new one. “Don’t ever do that again without my express permission,” he told me. “We don’t know what they’re going to ask, or what they’re angle is. Next time clear it with me.” He was really angry. Mind you, Kirk was technically my employee. I hired him. He was on my payroll. But that was a valuable lesson learned, because we wouldn’t be making this picture without him. He’d gambled on us and we owed him that respect. The same was true when he and I showed up in Munich and discovered that Stanley and Calder Willingham changed the ending of Paths.
Stanley—who always kept his options open, when it came to telling a story—grew concerned that ending, cold, as we originally had it, with the execution, was just too dark. He was trying to find a way out that would give the audience something more hopeful to hang on to. His first solution was to come up with a happy ending altogether where the three guys escape the firing squad in a sudden twist. Stanley and [co-writer] Calder Willingham were already in Bavaria when they came up with this. Kirk and I were back in Beverly Hills. It wasn’t known to either of us what they were up to. Once we arrived in Munich, Kirk took one look and said, “Fellas? We either do the script I agreed to, or I’m on the next plane home and you can find yourself another actor.”
He was a bright man, and he was ethical. He was also very angry at me, because they’d surprised me with this new ending as well. He said to me, “Jim, you’re either a liar, or you don’t have the respect of your team that’s required of a good producer.” That put me in an awful spot. But God bless Kirk. He gave us a night to think about it, and of course Stanley and I did the right thing. Calder was foolish: his attitude was, “Screw Kirk. Let him go home.” I said, “No. This is the moment to grow up, Calder. There’s no way we’re letting Kirk walk off this picture.” Stanley and I went to dinner by ourselves, and Stanley said to me, “What if we just go back to letting them die? It’s a simple fix.”
It was also true that executing the men was what attracted us to the story in the first place. You have to stick by your guns. Kirk was delighted when we tapped on his door and told him the next morning. All was forgiven. And of course, Stanley came up with that wonderful alternative, to close the movie on a moment of real affirmation—the German girl singing for the French who took her prisoner. That piece of inspiration directly came out of Kirk standing his ground, forcing Stanley to think his way through to a much richer, more original “happy” ending.
The girl who sang the song even became Mrs. Kubrick. Talk about happy endings!
Stanley is missed by many, but never by me. The reason is simple. He’s still with me. He’s been with me for close to 60 years, ever since that day in 1955 when I became his partner and closest friend, and he’ll be with me until the day I die. After that, who knows? We’re talking spiritually, of course. Maybe we’ll wind up in the same place. Maybe we’ll start up the partnership all over again.
Interview with James B. Harris © 2013, F.X. Feeney
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation.
35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Also courtesy of Park Circus Limited.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.