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The Big Idea - Paths of Glory
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The Big Idea Behind PATHS OF GLORY

Monday December, 10 2018 at 10:15 PM

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Director Stanley Kubrick and his partner, producer James B. Harris, were determined to follow up their critical hit, The Killing (1956), with another bankable project. They decided on a war picture, but one with an anti-war theme. Kubrick told Harris about Canadian writer Humphrey Cobb's obscure 1935 novel, Paths of Glory, that Kubrick had read when he was a young teenager. It was long out of print, so Harris tracked down a copy at the New York Public Library. Unable to check it out, he read it at the library and became entranced with the story.

Cobb's novel was based on a 1934 New York Times report of a trial just concluded in France. The families of five French enlisted men, shot for mutiny in 1915, had sued the army for damages. The court agreed that they were unfairly executed, but awarded two of the families with one token franc each. The other families got nothing. Cobb was so livid over this injustice that he wrote a short novel based loosely on the incident. The book had no title when Cobb finished it, so the American publisher held a contest offering a cash prize for the winning title. The winner suggested a line from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:" "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Paths of Glory arrived in bookstores in the summer of 1935.

By the time Kubrick and Harris got their hands on Paths of Glory, Humphrey Cobb was dead, but his widow was more than willing to sell them the movie rights for $10,000. Although the producing pair had no script, they took the project to MGM chief Dore Schary, who promptly told them to forget it. Schary just lost his shirt producing a Civil War epic for MGM - The Red Badge of Courage (1951) - and he was not about to sink more of MGM's cash into another potential debacle. Despite the MGM setback, the duo decided to commission a screenplay from pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson. His version was later reworked by noted author Calder Willingham, who had been working on another Kubrick-Harris project entitled The Burning Secret until that project was dropped and he was brought aboard Paths of Glory.

While a final script was being developed, Kubrick and Harris approached a few of Hollywood's top actors to play Dax, including James Mason and Richard Burton. Agents of a few top actors refused to even show such a depressing and non-commercial project as Paths of Glory to their clients. Still, one actor with a lot of Hollywood clout became very much interested in the project - Gregory Peck. The producers were excited at the prospect of casting the reputable actor, but Peck was unavailable for the next 18 months. Meanwhile, Kirk Douglas expressed an interest in the script and made an offer that the producers could not turn down. Plus, United Artists agreed to finance the picture since the very-bankable Douglas was interested. After Peck caught wind of the imminent deal between Kubrick-Harris and Kirk Douglas, he quickly called them to say that he had reassessed his priorities for the next year and that he was available to play Dax. But by that time, a stringent and ironclad deal between Kubrick-Harris and Douglas was set.

At Stanley Kubrick's urging, Jim Thompson added a happy ending to the first draft of the Paths of Glory screenplay. Incensed at the happy ending, Kirk Douglas asked if Kubrick dared authorize such a change, and if so, why. Kubrick agreed to the happy ending and had apparently wanted it to make the film more publicly appealing, thus increasing its box office take. In the end, the filmmakers decided to stick close to the original novel's ending. The film's screenwriting credit would finally be attributed to Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson.

by Scott McGee

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