International Problems With “Paths of Glory,” 1958

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Theatrical Release Poster, Paths of Glory, 1957

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  Most famously, because of official French objections, the movie was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival in June 1958, although Paths of Glory was screened in that city later in the year.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.

French amb was under instruction from the govt to inform US of the objection to the film, hopes it won't be shown in countries w/large French populations
US Amb noted the most popular movie in France years before was "From Here to Eternity" which did not portray US army in favorable terms
Memorandum of Conversation between Robert Valeur, Minister, French Embassy and Mr. Matthew Looram, March 5, 1958 (NAID 302021)

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.

3 thoughts on “International Problems With “Paths of Glory,” 1958

  1. The day that the memo was date stamped (Tuesday, March 11, 1958), the Associated Press reported that the film had been withdrawn from a film festival in Brussels. “Despite generally favorable reviews by Belgian movie critics, the movie was booed by French war veterans and Belgian spectators during its first Brussels showing.” However, showings would “resume Friday with a foreword so soothe French pride. . . . The preface was inserted after talks between the State Department and the French Foreign Ministry.” The foreword stated: “This episode of the 1914-1918 war tells of the madness of certain men caught in its whirlwind. It constitutes an isolated case in total contrast with the historical gallantry of the vast majority of French soldiers, the champions of the ideal of liberty which, since always, has been that of the French people.”

  2. The three French soldiers were chosen at random (!) for execution in the film, to set an example for the alleged “cowards” behind the failed suicide attack. I can’t say whether this morale or discipline “booster” was widely used in European armies, but the story is highly plausible within the general brutality and carnage of World War I.

    1. It wasn’t terribly common, but undoubtedly most notably used by the Italian chief of staff, Luigi Cardona. Accusations that he ordered poorly performing units decimated (10 percent of all personnel killed, drawn by lot like the Romans) may be false, but under his command at least 750 individuals were executed. Some officers were summarily dispatched in the wake of the collapse at Caporetto in 1917. Even after the “mutiny” of the French army in response to the utter failure of the Nivelle Offensive in spring 1917, few of those found guilty of capital offenses were actually executed. General Petain understood the necessity of discipline, while acknowledging the need for reform to address his troops’ frustrations. A much better leader of men than Cardona, to be sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *