During the First World War, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders General Mireau (George Macready) to launch an offensive against an impregnable German position: "the Ant Hill". Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is put in charge of carrying out the operation, which turns out to be a disaster. Mireau, furious, then decides to sentence men to death to set an example. Colonel Dax defends the three soldiers, chosen at random, before the court martial. Accused of cowardice before the enemy or defeatism, they are executed.
Paths of Glory is the adaptation of an eponymous novel by Humphrey Cobb, published in 1935. Kubrick, marked by this book in his youth, obtained the agreement of the producers to adapt it for the screen when Kirk Douglas showed interest in the leading role, that of Colonel Dax.
With the intention of deceiving United Artists, the film's distributor, Kubrick wrote a first script in which he dodges the novel's pessimistic ending, which he nonetheless planned on shooting. For Douglas, "Kubrick was, on the contrary, ready to shoot a happy ending, out of subservience to the producers and hunger for success" (1), and it was the actor who allegedly imposed the pessimistic ending on him.
Following the polemic that broke out in Brussels around the film and its being banned in Switzerland (which judged it "unquestionably offensive for France, her justice and her army" (2)), United Artists anticipated a possible ban by the French government, which rejected the image of the army put forward: in fact, the film was not distributed in France until 26 March 1975, at which time it was very well received by the critics.
(1) Michel Chion, Stanley Kubrick: l'humain, ni plus ni moins (Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 2005), p. 75.
(2) "Interdiction en Suisse", La Revue du cinéma, image et son, n° 295, April 1975, p. 63.