Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory: The tavern scene viewed in a yin/yang perspective

When viewed in a yin/yang perspective, the tavern scene in Paths of Glory reveals aspects of its structure that might not otherwise be noticed and that it shares with the memorable ending of another great classic. But before examining the scene in that perspective, we will need a shot-by-shot breakdown, in order to refer to specific shots by number, and some factual and interpretive background material. We will then be ready to apply one major form of the yin/yang complementarity, non-doing/doing, and to see in the scene’s structure a distinctive configuration not previously described in the literature.

Widely viewed as one of the best anti-war films ever made, Paths of Glory is also considered Kubrick’s first masterpiece. The film is based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, which had made a lasting impression on Kubrick when he read it at the age of fourteen.

The novel was inspired by events that occurred during World War I, and according to one commentator:

The emotional impetus behind the novel came from a dispatch to the New York Times on July 2, 1934 under the headline “French Acquit 5 Shot for Mutiny in 1915; Widows of Two Win Awards of 7 Cents Each,” and from Le fusillé, by Blanche Maupas, widow who obtained exoneration of her husband’s memory and was awarded damages of one franc. Small wonder with such inspiration that the novel from cover to cover relentlessly exposes and dissects military wickedness and corruption.

Eyster 1973: 214.

The men who were posthumously acquitted had been shot, taking the blame for a disaster caused by a general whose only concern had been self-advancement.

The title ‘Paths of Glory’ is derived from a line in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750/1751) which reads: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” And specifically in relation to Kubrick’s film, the paths of glory “are those trod by officers, advancing themselves at the cost of their soldiers’ lives” (Cocks 2004: 94). Oddly, the manuscript Cobb had submitted for publication was untitled and Viking held a competition offering a cash prize for the best title (Baxter 1999: 85).

For some commentators on the film, the word “ending” refers to the outcome for the three soldiers unfairly court-martialed, in which case a last minute reprieve, woven into some drafts of the screenplay, means “happy ending,” while executions carried out, in other drafts, mean “unhappy ending.”

Kirk Douglas considered the executions necessary for the film to fulfill its mission and tell its story authentically. When Kubrick first showed him the screenplay he had paid Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham to write and that the studios had all turned down, Douglas was deeply moved and said: “Stanley, I love this picture! We are going to make it. It will never make a nickel but we have to make it!” (Douglas 2012: 38). Douglas then put together a deal that United Artists accepted for funding the film.

At a later point, Kubrick surreptitiously switched versions of the script, with the one sent in to United Artists as the final screenplay having the three soldiers escape execution thanks to last minute reprieves. When Kirk Douglas discovered Kubrick’s underhanded move (Douglas 1999:274), this dialogue ensued:

I said, “Stanley, why would you do that?

He very calmly said, “To make it commercial. I want to make money.”

This was the source of Douglas’s first major conflict with Kubrick whom he famously called a “talented shit” (Douglas 1999: 333). Douglas insisted that the story be told with the full tragic weight of what actually happened. Though not credited as executive producer, he had arranged for the funding of Kubrick’s film and held the long end of the stick.

In this study when we refer to the film’s ending, it will not be to the outcome for the three soldiers designated as scapegoats, but rather to a new final scene, probably written after the last draft of the screenplay had already been printed. That scene, in which a captured German woman is forced to sing for drunken French troops in a nearby tavern, will from this point on be the focus of this study.

Below is a shot-by-shot breakdown of the tavern scene. To obtain readable copies of the four pages, please download them by clicking on the appropriate icon. I am grateful to Bryna Productions for their kind permission to use the many images from the film.

Download the breakdown here, if you are on a mobile device.

The players in the scene

The shoot took place in Bavaria and the French soldiers were played by off-duty German policemen from nearby Munich, supplied with fake beards and mustaches to make them look more French (Giddens 2010). Regarding voice-work, “nearly forty male singers were brought in to dub the voices of the men singing along with the girl” (LoBrutto 1997: 149). This singing begins in Shot 50 and becomes progressively louder. Screenwriter Willingham hinted about the layers of feeling these German extras must have felt when wearing World War I French uniforms and pretending to be fiercely anti-German (Polito 1995: 406). Believing that some of those policemen may have wanted to tell about being an extra in a Kirk Douglas film, I contacted relevant archives in Bavaria with the help of Dieter Britz in the hope of finding interviews in local magazines or newsletters with a few of those extras, but nothing useful turned up.

The woman in the scene was played by an actress Kubrick had seen on German TV, Christiane Susanne Harlan, credited in the film as Susanne Christian. Kubrick interviewed her in January 1957, gave her the role and fell in love with her. They were married the following year and remained together until Kubrick’s death in 1999. Having cast her in an added scene sometimes put Kubrick in a vulnerable position, for example with respect to his producer-partner Harris:

Harris was furious. ‘Are you fucking crazy? You want to put your girlfriend on the payroll? He became further alarmed on discovering that she was related to Nazi filmmaker Veidt Harlan, director of the notorious Jud Süss. But Kubrick was convinced the scene demanded her presence. “Try it, try it,” he urged. Harris reluctantly agreed and was so moved that he ended up leading the men in singing.

Baxter 1999: 95.

An American radio and television actor, Jerry Hausner was cast as the innkeeper. Among the many roles he had previously played was that of Ricky Ricardo’s agent, Jerry, in episodes of I Love Lucy in the early 1950s.

And Kirk Douglas was at the top of his game, with an Academy Award nomination for playing Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (Minnelli 1956). Other actors who had been considered for the main role in Paths of Glory include Gregory Peck, Jack Palance, Sterling Hayden, Richard Burton and James Mason (Baxter 1999: 76, 92).

Possible timeline

We know that Kubrick interviewed Christiane Susanne Harlan in January 1957, so the scene had to have been conceived by then. We know the shoot began in late March 1957, lasted 66 days and that with the exception of the battle scenes, the scenes were shot in sequence. That would place the shooting of the tavern scene in May 1957. A signed script Jerry Hausner used was auctioned in 2018, labeled 3rd draft, dated February 1957, credited to Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham (in that order) and used the last minute reprieve outcome for the scapegoats. The four pages devoted to the new ending were numbered 120 to 123 and had not been part of the printed script. They were loose sheets, clipped to a call-sheet. They may have been written just before the new scene was shot. I am grateful to Bruce Hershenson (2022) for the details.

The song

On first discussing her role in the film, Kubrick asked Christiane to propose a song, and when she suggested “The Faithful Hussar” (Der treue Husar) and sang it for him, he was convinced it was the right song for the scene. It tells the story of a soldier who is faithful to the woman he loves “for one whole year and longer yet.” While he is away in a foreign land, he learns that she has fallen ill and he returns to her. She gives him her hand, “the whole hand and much more” and their lovemaking “never came to an end.” She says she is dying and will soon be in her grave. He protests, but when he takes her in his arms again, her body is already cold and she must be buried.

Well-known in Germany, the song was becoming familiar to audiences in English speaking countries as well, with Louis Armstrong performing what he called his Satchmo version on the Ed Sullivan Show on July 15, 1956, and Vera Lynn recording her version as “Goodbye My Love” in February 1957.

Credit for the new final scene

On an evening shortly after Kubrick died, Steven Spielberg showed the final scene of Paths of Glory to the guests he happened to have, as proof of Kubrick’s warmth and humanity (Spielberg 1999).

…we talked the whole night about Stanley. And I wanted to show all of them a scene from a movie that for me represented how deep Stanley’s heart was and how much he could love and how much he could show emotion because he had been so often criticized for not being an emotional director. I thought he was a very emotional director. And so I put on the last scene from Paths of Glory where Christiane, who plays the German captive girl, stands up in front of all the French soldiers and sings and brings everyone to tears – and we were all crying. The soldiers were crying and we were all crying, watching. Just the last scene, I didn’t show the whole picture. And that isolated last scene to me represented who Stanley was as a human being.

Spielberg assumed that Kubrick was the author of that scene, as do most commentators (such as LoBrutto 1997: 75; Baxter 1997: 94; Bane 2006: 104).

However, it is possible that Calder Willingham is the one who actually thought up and wrote this scene, as he claimed in a 1988 letter to Robert Polito, who called the letter Willingham’s J’accuse. It included this passage:

Years ago Stanley Kubrick almost refused to read my memo on the final scene of Paths of Glory wherein I argued that the stark brutality of ending the film with the execution of the soldiers would be intolerable to an audience and philosophically an empty statement as well (this is what he was determined to do), that the scene I had invented (wherein the German girl sang in an amateurish and pathetic way Der Treuer Hussar [The Faithful Soldier] and caused the French soldiers to be moved and then to sing with her and share her tears in a common humanity) was essential if the story was to be bearable at all or the truth about human life.

Polito 1995: 406.

But even if Willingham “invented” the scene, Kubrick still made it his own by directing it after doing the casting, and it is to his credit that he took to heart Willingham’s wise suggestion for a new ending.

Purpose of the new ending

After seeing the horrors of trench warfare, executions of innocent men, and the murderous cynicism of the generals, viewers are finally given something to feel good about in the new ending, but only after being made to worry about the safety of the woman in the scene.

She is alone, unprotected and presented by the innkeeper in a way that invites trouble for her when he wins jeers from the men by pointing toward her breasts and referring to her “natural talents” (Shot 23). The men are wild, lascivious and have the excuse of her being German for not holding back.

Bane (2006: 106-7) aptly compares this situation with a scene in Kubrick’s earlier film, Fear and Desire (1953), in which a small group of soldiers capture a young woman and bind her to a tree. The soldier left to guard her while the others are away, wants to make love with her and decides to free her in the hope she will comply willingly. Instead she runs away, and he shoots and kills her.

Terrible things might happen to the woman in Paths of Glory as well, and we have to fear that in order to experience the relief that comes when the men fall silent to hear her singing (Shot 41) and then hum along with her song, starting at Shot 50 and growing progressively louder.

Dax, following the events within the inn from his listening post at the entrance, begins by showing discouragement and disgust with his men’s behavior (Shots 8 and 18), but later also experiences profound relief on hearing their humming (Shot 71).

Here are a few representative samples of the formulations found in the literature as to why the scene was added:

…the film’s ending manages to restore just the right measure of hope to both Dax and the viewer (Hunt 2010).

Dax is clearly humanized by the experience… the men aren’t monsters, there will be life after this godforsaken war (Giddens 2010).

The soldiers’ volte face reminds Dax that humanity is not built on greed and contempt – only that part of it which, in his experience, wears the gold-braided képi (Fuller 2014).

In the final scene, Douglas and the audience realize that life goes on, regardless of the sins of some men, and that the fight for compassion and understanding must continue (Boyd 1957).

I think the final scene of the film is like a flower blooming on a scarred battlefield, a reminder to all of us that as large as life may loom, men and women will always find their way back to some kind of common ground. Somehow the goodness of the human spirit can never be tamped down completely. There will be war but there will also be survivors and they will pick up and carry on (Rich 2010).

So Dax regains I think some faith in humanity by listening to the masses and he recaptures his idealism… (Mathiews n.d.).

Audiences have always liked Kirk Douglas’s grandstanding, as Col. Dax provides a handy outlet for our built-up rage. Mireau and Broulard’s intolerable behavior cues cheers for Kirk’s tirade, even when the actor performs his signature cracked-voice bit. But Kubrick immediately reclaims authorship of the film by following this scene with a surprise finish from left field. Like a leftover bit from Jean Renioir’s Grande Illusion, we see a captured German girl (Suzanne Christian) goaded into singing for the troops. The soldiers’ hoots and catcalls turn to tears as she sings a heartbreaking tune. Douglas’s contribution to this scene is limited to a pair of brief cutaways. He’s still the star, but the movie belongs to Stanley Kubrick (Erickson 2010).

An alternate interpretation has been proposed by Michel Ciment, who – surprisingly for an expert of his stature – seems to misrepresent the situation entirely in Paths of Glory in order to strengthen his case:

… to interpret the climax of Paths of Glory along humanistic lines – in the spirit of say Renoir’s La Grande Illusion – is to misunderstand Kubrick’s intentions. After the execution of the three innocent comrades, the other soldiers move off rather passively to listen to a café-singer who manages to bring tears to their eyes with a complacently sentimental song. It’s an ironic coda to a film in which burlesque is a crucial element.

Ciment 2001: 71.

In describing the woman in the scene as a “café-singer” the men have gone to hear rather than as a German captive forced to perform at an inn where the men were already drinking, Ciment’s comments – however intrinsically interesting they may be – have little to do with the scene Kubrick directed.

Roger Ebert’s critique of that final scene is also worth mentioning. He argued that the scene “doesn’t seem organic to the movie” (2005). There may be some truth to that view since several summaries of the film made no mention of the final scene (Chiarella 2010, Jacobson 2010, Morton 2010). On the other hand, that scene is in some ways an antidote to the toxins in the rest of the film; and there is nothing wrong with its standing out as cut from a different cloth. Ebert ends his remarks with this statement:

Songs at the ends of dramas usually make us feel better. They are part of closure. This song at the end of this movie makes us feel more forlorn. It is not a release, but a twist of Kubrick’s emotional knife.

To this I would argue that it isn’t the song itself that counts but rather the song’s effect on the characters in the film. In this case the men humming, starting in Shot 50, the faint smile in Christiane’s eyes in Shot 61 when she feels safe, the relief on Dax’s face in Shot 71. These are things that lift our spirits at the end.

A yin/yang perspective

Although several forms of the yin/yang complementarity could appropriately be applied to this scene, only one will be drawn upon here: non-doing/doing. Non-doing is defined as holding back, doing nothing or doing less, not intervening, letting things take their own course. Purely cognitive processes, such as inner monologue, are regarded as non-doing. Doing is actively performing behaviors. And neither is gendered in the model I use. For further details, please see Raskin 2022, pp. 12-16.

Non-doing is represented in Shots 8, 18 and 71, by Col. Dax standing and listening at the entrance to the tavern, with no indication that he will intervene in any way regardless of what happens inside. It is within the tavern that all doing takes place, with the woman, the innkeeper, and the soldiers performing their respective roles in all shots from 4 to 70 other than 8 and 18.

What we have then is a configuration consisting of two parallel processes, the yin of the protagonist’s non-doing and the yang of the other characters’ doing. That it is the protagonist – the most dynamic character in the film – who represents non-doing in this scene is of course noteworthy. The song helps to keep the action moving forward along its trajectory. And a high-stake outcome Dax awaits is a sign that the woman is safe.

I know of only one other film in which this configuraion is found in the final scene, and curiously, that other film and Paths of Glory are among those most highly praised for their endings in all film history. That other film is of course The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), about which I wrote some years ago (1996: 101):

At the conclusion of [Graham] Greene’s treatment, [Holly] Martins [played by Joseph Cotten] catches up with Anna [Valli] as she leaves the cemetery. They walk together and are finally seen with her hand through his arm, which inspires the narrator (Calloway) to remark, among other things, that Martins had a way with girls. In stark contrast to this happy ending, Reed’s film concludes with a remarkable shot lasting over a minute, with Martins leaning against a wagon in the left foreground as Anna approaches from a great distance, getting progressively closer, and – without so much as a glance in his direction – finally walking past him and out of frame. Martins then lights a cigarette and in exasperation, throws the match to the ground, after which the picture fades to black. The strains of Karas’s zither music are heard throughout the shot.

Seeing this scene in relation to the non-doing/doing configuration, we can identify Martins standing and watching as the non-doer, while Anna – walking past him – is the doer who determines the outcome Martins awaits: knowing whether or not she is open to his initiatives toward her. His placement on the screen is a good visualization of his now marginalized status and he will get no compensatory close-ups before the film ends. Finally, Karas’s zither music is a driving force in the scene. In the Third Man variant of the configura­tion, both the doing and non-doing processes are represented in the same shot, while in Paths of Glory, there was cross-cutting between the two processes.

Concluding note

If structure serves function, then perhaps the positioning of the protagonist’s non-doing as the story nears its end point may make it somewhat easier for the viewer to let go of the fiction. In that case, the configuration we have been discussing, which involves a marginalization of the protagonist in varying ways and to varying degrees, could be considered a closural strategy.

I am aware that Paths of Glory does not end with Shot 71 and that Dax’s brief meeting with the sergeant in Shot 72 pivots the story one more time, giving Dax a chance to win the viewer’s admiration once again by giving his men a few more minutes of human warmth before sending them to their slaughter. And even that is followed by an additional beat as Shot 73 shows Dax fully embodying with his gait and posture the military culture he has chosen, despite its horrors when controlled by sadistic, degenerate old men. But as the title of this article indicates, my goal was to describe the tavern scene and I did not want to draw the reader’s attention away from the non-doing/doing configuration which, as far as I can tell, has not previously been described in the relevant literature.

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