'Paths of Glory' Revisited: A Still-palpable Jewish Subtext

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Kirk Douglas in 'Paths of Glory.'Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stanley Kubrick’s seminal antiwar film, “Paths of Glory” (1957), has just been rereleased to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. As with previous Kubrick films, this one also contains hidden Jewish echoes.

Based loosely on a true story, the film was adapted from a 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb.

The plot concerns the French Army commanders who, during World War I, were willing to sacrifice an entire division in a hopeless attack on a fortified German position known as “Ant Hill.” When it fails, they seek a scapegoat who will take the blame, and three soldiers are selected as blood sacrifices for the greater good of France. They are put on trial for cowardice and although ably defended by a lawyer-cum-officer called Col. Dax (played by Kirk Douglas in the movie), it is all a fake formality and the three are ultimately executed.

The question of how the three scapegoats were selected was a thorny issue, as seen by both the book and film. Indeed, in the wake of the Holocaust, which had ended only 12 years before Kubrick's movie came out, the very notion of selection perhaps contained echoes of the extermination camps in the minds of Kubrick and Douglas, both the sons of Jewish immigrants to the United States.

In the novel and original screenplay, one of those initially chosen as a scapegoat – Private Meyer – is a Jew. Classed as a “social undesirable,” Meyer is also described as a child-molesting syphilitic, drawing upon age-old anti-Semitic canards about Jews and their deviant sexuality.

A French army captain, seeing the wider ramifications of such a decision, ironically spares Meyer precisely because he is Jewish. As the screenplay for the Kubrick movie, first written by Jim Thompson and later reworked by Calder Willingham, puts it, “This is the one time when being a Jew is going to save a man’s life instead of costing him it.”

But Meyer is not saved because of either philo-Semitism or altruism. Rather, the captain’s caution is justified by an anti-Semitic rationale. In Cobb’s words, “You never know what connections these Jews may have.”

Furthermore, the decision is rationalized by a desire to protect the reputation of the French military, which suffered such a battering in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair (involving a Jewish officer in the French army, who was framed in 1894 for another man’s crime).

When the captain’s perplexed and anti-Semitic comrade doesn’t follow this line of thought, he is told, in a speech worth quoting: “Do you remember the Dreyfus case? … It’s a lesson, that’s all, a lesson against exposing yourself to the same thing over again … They never dreamed when they picked on that quiet little Jewish officer that the whole world would ring with his name for years to follow. That ministry after ministry would fall and a war loom possible because of him. Or that the entire nation of France would be kept in a state of disturbance over him and his fate.

"No, if I chose Meyer, the cry of anti-Semitism would undoubtedly be raised – rightfully so, too. No one can say when or at whose expense that cry would be silenced. That’s where I’m using my head. I want to be clean.”

Thus Meyer is spared selection for the very reasons that would mark him out for death in the decades to follow.

Erased subplot

This entire subplot, for reasons unknown, was removed by Kubrick when the screenplay was adapted in the finished film. But strangely enough, the character of Meyer (played by Jerry Hausner, who was best known for his role in “I Love Lucy”) does appear in "Paths of Glory," even though all references to his Jewishness are completely erased. Against type, Meyer is described as being an excellent soldier; the only clue to his Jewishness is his last name.

Why was the subplot left out? Perhaps those who made and appeared in the film feared that, after World War II and the era of McCarthyism, it was too soon for a commercial Hollywood product to include explicit references to the Dreyfus Affair and anti-Semitism. Historian Geoffrey Cocks, who has written extensively about Kubrick and the Holocaust, felt that this option “was not available to him in the wake of Auschwitz.”

Nonetheless, the specter of Dreyfus, just like the Holocaust, hangs over the film, even if it is not explicit anywhere. Certainly, the French military brass comes across in a terrible light, particularly in the face of the uprightness, honor and honesty of Colonel Dax as he defends the three condemned men.

Unsurprisingly, then, “Paths of Glory” was not screened in France until the mid-1970s. Using diplomatic channels, the French government placed enormous pressure on United Artists, the European distributor of the movie, to avoid releasing the film. As a consequence, it was not submitted to French censors, and not shown there until 1975.

In order to preserve good relations with the French, or at least not strain them, “Paths of Glory” was not shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1958 after the French threatened to withdraw from it. This ban was enforced in Germany until 1959. Likewise, the Swiss called it “subversive propaganda directed at France,” refused to screen it for journalists, and declared that any prints not immediately exported out of the country would be seized and confiscated.

Its antimilitary content meant that the film was banned from American military bases. It was also officially censored in Spain by the fascist government of Franco, and was not released there until 1986, 11 years after Franco’s death.

Most curious of all, though, was that Israel’s film censorship board also decided against showing the movie after it came out. The official reason given was it “disparaged the French Army” and Israel had a stated policy of preventing screenings of any film that ridiculed another government.

But was that decision actually taken to appease France, which was, at that time, Israel’s main arms supplier? France had already sold Israel anti-tank missiles and Mirage jets and, in October 1957, had agreed to provide Israel with a nuclear reactor.

While realpolitik may have been dominant here, the decision not to show “Paths of Glory” was a strange one, given the film’s Jewish subtext. Maybe a militaristic society like Israel did not want to be seen to be endorsing such an antimilitaristic movie.

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.Credit: Screengrab

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