Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
The 1957 motion picture Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the more famous anti-war movies of all time. It is set during World War I. A French colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, defends three of his soldiers who have been falsely accused of cowardice to cover up command failures that led to a disastrous attack on a German position. The colonel volunteers to defend the men because he was a lawyer in civilian life. He puts up a good defense but in a farce of a court martial, the three soldiers are convicted and then they are shot by a firing squad. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb. That book was loosely based on a true incident of World War I.
The movie, distributed by the American motion picture company United Artists, was released internationally in November 1957 and in the United States in January 1958. To say the least, French officialdom was not pleased with the film as it was not a flattering portrayal of the French military. Most famously, because of official French objections, the movie was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival in June 1958, although Paths of Glory was screened in that city later in the year.
That controversy should not have surprised anybody. As the following memorandum of conversation shows, from very early on, French authorities did what they could to repress the movie.
In recognition of its importance, in 1992, the Library of Congress added Paths of Glory to the National Film Registry. Under the provisions of the National Film Preservation Act, the Library annually adds 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion pictures to that list.
Source: Memorandum of Conversation, March 5, 1958, file 811.452/3-558, 1955-59 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.