Typically, Paths of Glory is described as an anti-war movie, but this is accurate only to a degree. It is, certainly, a movie that has fairly intense negative feelings about the act of warfare and what it does to the people fighting in them, with American cinema's first really horrifying depiction of what was once called shell-shock, and a single combat scene that depicts with severest objectivity both the violence and the speed with which lives could be lost in the hideous trench warfare of the First World War. But it is not really a film about those things. It is instead about the bureacratic mechanism of war; the system of hierarchical rankings and designated responsibilities that always make every human death somebody else's fault, no matter where you look. And it is very deeply, intensely, and angrily against this bureaucracy, far more than it has any kind of more generally anti-war perspective. This specific hatred of the buck-passing nature of the war machine leaves the film feeling astonishingly forward-looking; the attitudes it expressed in 1957 feel more akin to the anti-Vietnam protests that were still a decade in the future at that point. Of course, these themes were an inheritance from Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel, which was thus even more impressively forward-thinking than Stanley Kubrick's film (the script was adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson), especially since it adopted yet more of a savage anti-bureaucracy tone, lacking the film's overarching protagonist and thus presenting itself more specifically as a story about a faceless system.

But we are here to talk about one of the early triumphs of Kubrick's directorial career, not a modernest war novel by a veteran that hasn't ever been especially popular. And Paths of Glory, the movie, is heady and punishing stuff of a sort that movies in '57 had never really attempted, and movies since '57 have been awfully scared of attempting. It is a work of harshest cinematic realism when that style was still in its infancy, particularly outside of Europe, and the tangible conflict between the almost documentary-style camera movement, the distinct late-'50s tang to the film stock, the wide gamut of acting styles, and the increasingly ill fit of the scant "Hollywood" scenes within the merciless framework Cobb invented - the conflict between the very modern and the very safely studio-bound, I say, is not merely a matter of a filmmaker pushing against the aesthetic confines of "The System"; in this context, it is an exact match for the content of the story, which tells (as a WWI story almost has to) of the struggle between the rotten old way and a new way that hasn't figured itself out yet.

The plot is brutally straightforward: the 88-minute movie has the kind of urgently bullshit-free approach to storytelling that presents the story as taking place not merely inevitably with with terrifying, thoughtless speed, and in this regard is even more viciously spare than the lean novel. In 1916, the French government badly wants to take a strategic hotspot nicknamed "The Anthill" from Germany. When Gen. Mireau (George Macready) is presented with this strategy by Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), his first response is to bluntly observe that not even a miracle would be enough to break the German stranglehold on this impregnable mass of guns. All smiles and insinuations, Broulard points out that Mireau's exceptional career momentum would come to an ice-cold stop if he doesn't take the fort, dangles the promise of a medal in front of the other man, and in no time at all the order comes down that the 701st Regiment, under the command of Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas, whose production company paid for the movie), is to take the Anthill the very next day. Dax feebly points out that this is ridiculous, but gets shouted down; when his men suffer agonising casualties along the way to advancing the front literally not one yard closer to the Anthill, Mireau goes into a tizzy and, with Broulard, whips up a scheme of having three soldiers executed for cowardice, the assumption being that dying for no reason would at least look better on paper than retreating when it became clear that the attack was hopeless.

As a narrative, it's a bleak, cynical depiction of men in power playing games with the lives of those beneath them, constantly attempting to make sure that they'll get all the credit for winning and none of the blame for losing. This is the obvious, straightforward bit. Where Paths of Glory shades into genius, and continues to demonstrate Kubrick's supreme command of the art form the year after The Killing showcased his talents, is in the ways that the very straightforward story (which is, anyway, a bit better in its expression in Cobb's novel, which lacks even the minute traces of sentiment in Kubrick's film) is shaded by the use of camera and even more by the use of performance. Already, there were enough truly brilliant turns in The Killing to demonstrate the young director's facility with actors, and I think that even now that he's an acknowledge, unmovable member of the pantheon, Kubrick's brilliance as a director of actors is not sufficiently acknowledged. But Paths of Glory is something different than just having good performers deliver lines well. One of the things that the director would get awfully good at in his mature period was the deliberate employment of "anti-acting"; by which I mean, he'd often encourage deliberately poor performances from his cast to get at very specific effects in the movie.

That's something we see the first flickers of in Paths of Glory: not that Macready or Menjou are giving particularly "bad" performances - Menjou, in particular, has some awe-inspiring layers of duplicity in his final scene. But there's an Old Hollywood tang to both of their performances (Menjou was about as definitively Old Hollywood as you were going to get in 1957), a certain stagey declamatory style of presenting themselves and speaking their words. The three men picked for the firing squad - Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker), Pvt. Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), and Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) - are united in having a shuffling, hyper-realist way of bearing themselves (Carey being a hell of a lot less realist than the others), and a certain flat New Yorker's way of talking that marks them out as occupying, in feeling if not in reality, the same space as the experiments with Method acting and the everyday dramatic situations taking hold of serious theater in the '50s (indeed, almost all of the grunts have a distinct touch of New York about them, a simpler and subtler version of the accents game Kubrick played so obviously in his next film). In between them is Kirk Douglas, an old-school actor with a passion for the new, trying to modulate the mumbly naturalism of the soldiers and the bombastic acting of the generals.

Macready, in particular, needs a little more attention paid to him, because his acting choices shift very dramatically after his first scene, the only one where Mireau evidences any kind of spine for any length of time. There, he simply recites his lines crisply and warmly. Later on, he's rolling vowels around and waving the timber of his voice like an out-of-control melodrama actor, and this is not merely to mark him out as the Bad Guy. Not even primarily. It's a rather clever way to insinuate the hollow, performative element within the character, the fake exterior of jovial authority surrounding the complete blank of personality that the story identifies as being the the driving force of warfare: decisions being made not by people, but by the whole mashed-up edifice of the military, with the notion of "this is how generals act" dictating what generals do rather than whatever it is that the individual generals themselves are capable of thinking and expressing.

But, we should never forget, Kubrick was always the photojournalist who became a movie director, and if Paths of Glory doesn't have any visual gestures quite as striking as the cinematography in Killer's Kiss or The Killing, he and George Krause still did some excellent work in capturing the action in the field of battle and the desperate courtroom scenes that take up a considerably larger portion of screentime. That said, the best visuals are the war scenes: the eerily fluid tracking shots through the trenches, soaking in the weary, beaten-down men on all sides, turning the setting of the most brutal and horribly static of all wars into a prison of geometry: straight lines, at crisp angles, leaving the men within their bounds looking helpless and messy. Or the depiction of the Anthill as a teeming mass of humanity shooting and dying, literalising the name of the place a bit too much on the nose, maybe (it's worth pointing out, the movie's script changed the name of the hill from the Pimple in the book), but such an excellent series of busy, chaos-filled images set at the intense God's-eye remove of later Kubrick that they work, anyway.

It is a chilly movie: everything looks just the slightest bit washed-out foggy without being actually soft, and even before death happens on the battlefield or in the firing squad, it's a movie that reeks of death. To combat this, the film does indulge in a bit of sentiment, near the end; an unusual gesture in Kubrick's filmography (it is, I believe, the only one of his films that is more humanistic than its source). The film adds two key scenes, one a confrontation between Dax and Mireau that turns into a confrontation between Dax and Broulard that at least implies that some of the people who made bad decisions might be held accountable for them; it's a bit tidy and conventional, but Menjou's smug performance turns any sense of righteousness to ash. The more important addition, and the better scene, is the famous finale that witnesses several French soldiers bellowing abuse at the film's lone woman, a nameless German prisoner (Susanne Christian, the stage name of Christiane Harlan, who would marry Kubrick the following year) forced to sing the folk song "The Faithful Hussar", in the process turning the animalistic horde of soldiers into a silent, tearful mass of abashed people, suddenly realising that people are people regardless of language and nation.

Write it down, and it looks hokey as hell. But the way Kubrick and Krause and editor Eva Kroll framed it in virtually nothing but shots of faces does something magical with that trite, overly-moralistic concept. The shots of the French soldiers in a masse of shouting activity are dark and dirty; the shots of the woman are clean and bright in contrast, and as the soldiers quiet down, they're increasingly shown in individual close-ups, people emerging from the savage crowd. It is an astoundingly hopeful moment, presented so vividly through the contrast between images that it works on a level that bypasses narrative entirely. There's still a final beat that slams the door on this moment - war will continue - but there is a genuine optimism here that stands out from every other mordant, bleak beat in the director's career, and is genuinely earned despite its position in a film that otherwise argues so persuasively and directly that people, deep down, are kind of awful. That's not the feeling we're left with, though, and Paths of Glory is all the better for it.