There are two scenes that I feel stand above the rest and indicate my overall problem with the film: when two of the accused men get into a fight and the final scene with the German woman. Kubrick goes handheld for a portion of the fight scene (reminiscent of the brawl scenes in his later film Barry Lyndon), and the drunk character’s vulnerability is shown in close-up. Likewise, the closing scene uses close-ups and a careful zoom on the tearful men.
But for the rest of the film, Kubrick meets the inherent formalism of the military with his own formalism, and the lack of contrast there leaves with me just something serviceable, stylistically, that is. Paths of Glory is saved by those two scenes, the writing (which reminds me of better The Cranes Are Flyingand The Ascent), and the occasional acting flourish (I particularly like the performance when the prosecutor guy reads the judgment right before the execution).
I could see the case being made for the film’s value to lie within its “polish,” so to speak, being gradually worn down by the aforementioned moments of character weakness. Personally, it isn’t gradual enough since the moments aren’t throughout. We get them in the writing, such as when one of the accused men falls to the ground pleading for his life, but Kubrick doesn’t respond in any way. It’s presented like everything before and after it.
For the record, though, the scene with the German woman is top, top tier.
Just noticed that The Cranes Are Flying came out the same year. Pretty interesting.