Stanley Kubrick approached Kirk Douglas with the script. Douglas instantly fell in love with it, telling Kubrick, "Stanley, I don't think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it." Douglas' words proved to be prophetic-the film was not a success at the box office.
The prison scene where the men discuss their fates ran overtime on a Saturday. Stanley Kubrick could not get what he wanted, and producer James B. Harris came to the set to tell the director after take 63 that overtime was not allowed in Germany. Kubrick resisted stopping in a rare show of temper. He finally got what he wanted by take 74.
Stanley Kubrick, widely known as a perfectionist, shot 68 takes of the doomed men's "last meal" scene. Because the details of the scene required that the actors appear to be engaged in the act of eating, a new roast duck had to be prepared for almost every take.
Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.
For box-office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happier ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it. Apparently, he was right.
Was banned in France for its negative portrayal of the French army. Switzerland also banned the film (until 1978), accusing it of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." Belgium required that a foreword be added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers."
During filming Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol) was disruptive. He also faked his own kidnapping for personal publicity, causing Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris to fire him. Because of this, they were unable to show the three condemned soldiers during the battle scene, and a double was used for the scene when the priest hears Ferol's confession.
Richard Anderson remembered, "The trench was gruesome. It just reeked, and then the weather was so lousy--it was cold, it was freezing and overcast and gray. We were all sick. We all had colds, we were all sick from the first week. We all looked awful, but it certainly added to the movie."
The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.
French authorities considered the film an offense to the honor of their army and prohibited its exhibition in France until 1975. In Germany it wasn't allowed to be shown for a couple of years after its release to avoid any strain in relations with France.
Stanley Kubrick's numerous fluid tracking shots required that the trenches be two feet wider than the original World War I trenches--six feet as opposed to four feet--to allow room for the roving camera dollies. Although the technical director objected to the widening, the duckboards the camera rolled on were authentic.
Special effects supervisor Erwin Lange was forced to appear before a special German government commission before he was permitted to acquire the huge number of explosives needed for the battle scenes. Over a ton of explosives were discharged in the first week of filming alone.
The song performed by Christiane Kubrick (née Christiane Harlan) at the end of the film is a German folk song titled "Der treue Hussar" ("The Faithful Hussar") and dates from 1825. Vera Lynn took the song to #55 in the US record charts.
Six hundred German policemen were hired as extras to play the French troops, while six cameras tracked the attack, recording their "deaths." Each one of the extras--many of whom had fathers who fought in World War I--were assigned "dying zones," the exact locations in the battle area where they were to fall dead after being "killed" by machine gun bullets, shrapnel, or suffering other horrendous demises. Stanley Kubrick had a bit of a problem, though; he had to keep reminding the policemen, who had three years military training, that they were supposed to act fearful on the battlefield. Only after Kubrick's repeated directions did the extras get the idea of acting scared. He also got the to stop performing foolish feats of physical courage such as leaping in and out of foxholes that were lined with explosives and were capable of inflicting severe burns.
Gen. Paul Mireau and Gen. George Brulard appear to be based loosely on two real French generals, Robert Nivelle and Philippe Pétain. Nivelle was a French army Commander-in-Chief who ordered an unsuccessful assault on German positions that resulted in horrendous French casualties. He was sacked and replaced by Petain, who ordered the execution of dozens of French soldiers who had mutinied when they found out they were to be sent across the same terrain to attack the same target again.
Stanley Kubrick's working with Kirk Douglas on this film directly led to him replacing Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus (1960) in 1960. Mann and Douglas had had a falling out on the production of that film so Douglas asked for Kubrick to direct.
Col. Dax's headquarters was placed in a severely damaged building, which looks as if it actually had been hit by shells. This set was in fact the old castle of Schleissheim, opposite the 18th-century castle, used as the set for the court martial, etc. During WWII factories near Schleissheim were hit by an air raid. Some bombs fell on the old castle, causing heavy damage. So Dax' headquarters not only looked like it had been bombarded, it actually had been.
Kirk Douglas was irritated by Timothy Carey's erratic acting, and made his irritation known, loudly. However, Stanley Kubrick seemed to have enjoyed getting Douglas riled up. During the court-martial scene, when Douglas was criticizing Carey's delivery, Kubrick whispered to Carey, "Make this a good one, because Kirk doesn't like it."
Both Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas knew that the film was bound to be a hard sell at the box office. Despite the minor box-office take, Douglas still pocketed a salary that was roughly equal to a third of the film's total budget, which came to about $1 million. Kubrick, meanwhile, worked for a percentage of the profits, but received no salary.
An early critical test of Stanley Kubrick's obsession with control on the set came during the making of this film, as recalled by Kirk Douglas: "He made the veteran actor Adolphe Menjou do the same scene 17 times. 'That was my best reading,' Menjou announced. 'I think we can break for lunch now.' It was well past the usual lunch time but Kubrick said he wanted another take. Menjou went into an absolute fury. In front of Douglas and the entire crew he blasted off on what he claimed was Kubrick's dubious parentage, and made several other unprintable references to Kubrick's relative greenness in the art of directing actors. Kubrick merely listened calmly, and, after Menjou had spluttered to an uncomplimentary conclusion, said quietly, 'All right, let's try the scene once more.' With utter docility, Menjou went back to work. Stanley instinctively knew what to do".
In an early attempt to sell the project to a studio, Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris rented military uniforms and gathered several male friends to pose for a photograph that would capture the essence of their story. They affixed the photo to the cover of each screenplay copy.
When Kirk Douglas was first approached for the role, he was committed to a Broadway play. Stanley Kubrick then met Gregory Peck in connection with How to Steal a Million (1966); Peck was interested but was also unavailable. Douglas' play was postponed and then Peck also became available; Douglas got in first and got the part.
Composer Gerald Fried actually created two main title themes for the movie. While most prints of the film features his arrangement of the French national anthem, "Marseillaise," another version opened with an original composition by Fried. The latter version was created for select European markets that might have taken offense at the anthem's use in a film so critical of France's military leadership.
The World War I battle scenes, like the Vietnam combat sequences in Full Metal Jacket (1987) 30 years later, were not shot in authentic locations but were recreated in different geographic areas. For instance, this film was shot outside the village of Pucheim, west of Munich, Germany. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Germany, even though it takes place along the Western Front in France. The soldiers' trial and execution were filmed in and around the Schleissheim Palace, just beyond the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial. At the time the film went into pre-production, the era of "runaway" productions was in full swing in Hollywood, when films often went to other countries to shoot because of cheaper labor costs and less government and union interference.
Although the story takes place on France's western front, Stanley Kubrick chose to shoot the film in and around Munich, Germany. Most interior scenes were filmed at Bavaria's Geiselgasteig Studios, and the court-martial scenes were shot in nearby Schleissheim Castle, an 18th-century structure then serving as a national museum. Just beyond this location is the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial.
In 1938 director George Stevens wanted to make a film from the Humphrey Cobb novel. RKO Pictures, which had Stevens under contract, did not want to produce an antiwar film, anticipating that war was in the offing, and steered him to direct Gunga Din (1939) instead.
Bryna, Kirk Douglas' production company, hired dozens of German workers to alter several acres into the vast hell of "No Man's Land." They did so by gouging out the crater holes, digging huge ruts and gullies, filling some with water, covering the area with a tangled spider's web of prickly barbed wire, and then planting hundreds of explosives throughout that were to be detonated during the initial attack.
David Simon named the film as an influence on The Wire (2002). The influence of the film comes in its depiction of the tribulations of "middle management", in the form of Dax's unsuccessful attempt to protect his troops against the inhumane ambitions of his superiors, which in turn influenced the series' depiction of various institutions acting against individuals
The quotation "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," used by Col. Dax in describing Gen. Mireau's political manipulations, is attributed to Samuel Johnson, an 18th-century English writer known for his wit and political commentary.
Stanley Kubrick once said of his decision to make a war film "One of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual or our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation. Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallize and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appeared forced or, even worse, false."
Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM, liked The Killing (1956) and hired Stanley Kubrick and James B. Harris to develop film stories from MGM's pile of scripts and purchased novels. Finding nothing they liked, Kubrick remembered reading Humphrey Cobb's book years before and suggested it as their next project. Schary strongly doubted the commercial possibilities of the story, which had already been turned down by every other major studio. After Schary was fired by MGM in a major shake-up, Kubrick and Harris managed to interest Kirk Douglas in a script version that Kubrick had done with Calder Willingham. United Artists agreed to back it with Douglas as the star.
The title of the film, which is the same as the novel on which it was based, was taken from a line in the 18th-century poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
Kem Dibbs is credited as a cast member in the opening credits, but is omitted in the more comprehensive end credits. Therefore, the opening credits are listed first and the rest of cast list is taken from the end credits, as required by IMDb rules.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The final scene of war-weary French soldiers being moved by the singing of a German prisoner in her native tongue has an actual basis in history. On the Western Front during the winter of 1914, there was the Trêve de Noël or Christmas ceasefire. Several historical accounts recall French and German soldiers singing Christmas carols together across "no-man's" land from their respective trenches.