Lawyers in film: Paths of Glory (1957)

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A sobering insight into past legal and social cultures where the rule of law is jettisoned. By David Langwallner

Stanley Kubrick, the director of Paths of Glory, was of course an American but became a naturalised UK citizen. Although many are lost in admiration for his epic later films, I am not. They are often overblown. It is his earlier films that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, contain multitudes.

Paths of Glory was made in 1957 before Kubrick became renowned as a filmmaker. The title is derived from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard: ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’.

Kirk Douglas, who very recently died at 103, in what he considered his finest role, plays a French colonel (Colonel Dax) during the First World War. One of the other French generals (General Marceau played by George Macready) orders a suicide attack on the German trenches. The troops attack but are forced to come back due to heavy fire and lack of support. Marceau is incensed at the retreat and in order to save France’s honour (or more precisely, his own and that of the high command) he (with the complicity of the other higher command in scenes which show how venal a failed establishment can be) ensures that three soldiers be selected at random in order to be executed or, as he puts it: ‘If these little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, then they’ll face French ones.

The soldiers are selected and Dax (Douglas, pictured above) defends them in a court martial, indignant at the charge.

Although the film is not intrinsically about law, we are now, in my view, entering another age of potential martial law where such types of decisions could be made or are in certain jurisdictions. COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of emergency powers worldwide and a respect for due process and victimisation is less sacrosanct; the rule of law compromised by political expediency and financial necessity.

The film also offers a sobering insight into a legal and social culture where a finding of guilt is necessary to save the reputation and honour of an institution and the rule of law is jettisoned. The soldiers are mere scapegoats for the interest of the higher command; the trial no more than a cover up and a show trial.

Dax provides an eloquent rebuttal of the legal proceedings in his closing speech:

‘There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion... I protest against being prevented from introducing evidence that I consider vital to the defence, the prosecution presented no witnesses, there has never been a written indictment of charges made against the defendants, and lastly, I protest against the fact that no stenographic record of this trial has been kept. The attack yesterday morning was no stain on the honour of France, but this court-martial is such a stain... Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty will be a crime to haunt each of you to the day you die. I can’t believe that the noblest impulse in man, his compassion for another, can be completely dead here. Therefore, I humbly beg you to show mercy...’

Alas, these words were unheeded. The film is immensely moving and harrowing. It is a disturbing reminder of how expediency can trump the interests of justice, and of relevance today to any legal setting where scapegoating and victimisation takes the place of justice. The final scene is most poignant. A guileless young woman (in metaphorical terms a lamb to the proverbial slaughter) is made to sing a song before a bunch of drunken military men who become reflectively moved.

Of distinct relevance to Paths of Glory is Herman Melville’s famous novello Billy Budd (1924), one of the great short novels in the language, published posthumously, and illustrated graphically in the film by Peter Ustinov (1962).

Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), a happy go lucky and popular young sailor incurs the enmity of John Claggart (Robert Ryan), the captain of arms who falsely accuses him of mutiny and whom Budd accidentally kills by a kind of spasmodic reaction which might raise certainly provocation and or diminished responsibility or possibly a form of automatism in this day and age if one’s being clinical.

The insincere Captain Vere (Ustinov) convenes a court martial where he impresses on that body, irrespective of the relative blamelessness of Budd, the need to adopt the strict letter of naval discipline and law. The court, with great reluctance and bowing to the pressure of the Captain, convicts Budd and he is executed the following morning.

The court martial, similiar to Paths of Glory, is a travesty. During his crucial intervention in proceedings (in breach of natural justice, as Captain Vere is both witness, accuser and, in effect, judge) he breaches every known principle of natural justice. Vere, in a crucial passage, in response to the qualms of the tribunal, then expressly invokes the distinction between positivism and natural law:

‘If, mindful of the palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard the death of the master-at-arms as the prisoner’s deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one? But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered? Now can we adjudge to summary and shameful death of a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so – Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I, too, feel that, the full force of that. It is nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to nature? No, to the King … For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly the law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.’

As a codicil, Kubrick’s subsequent film Dr Strangelove (1964), with its black comedy portrayal of nuclear meltdown, is also deeply relevant in our day and age of virus mismanagement and cost benefit analysis by our leaders. Before any further dehumanisation occurs, perhaps they should heed the ironic words of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern spoken by the mad General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in the war room:

‘Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed!

Muffley: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.’

These films are prescient reminders that as lawyers we must be vigilant in dangerous times.

Peter Ustinov as Captain Vere ‘breaches every known principle of natural law’ – Billy Budd (1962)
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David Langwallner

David Langwallner is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics and is a barrister at 1MCB. He is a published author and writes monthly columns in the Village magazine in Ireland and the website Cassandra Voices. David was 2015 Irish Lawyer of the Year for his work as director of the Irish Innocence Project.