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On the eve of the executions instigated by General Mireau (George Macready) in "Paths of Glory", Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) tells General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) that the "attempt to murder three innocent men" can be "prevented by the General Staff". Broulard exits, holding the depositions proving Mireau's order to shell his own troops, but allows the executions to continue as planned.

After the executions, Broulard tells Mireau there will be an inquiry, and Broulard tells Dax "France cannot afford to have fools guiding her military destiny. I'm grateful to you for having brought this matter to my attention". Broulard knows Mireau's career is over (since Broulard offers Mireau's command to Dax), and Broulard must also realize any inquiry would determaine Mireau's deranged orders where revealed to Broulard before the executions, yet Broulard didn't help the innocent men, essentially making him a complicit "military fool". So why did Broulard let the executions proceed?

It's interesting to note that in an earlier version of the screenplay, Dax and Broulard have a much more involved discussion of the logic of the executions, and Broulard does save the men! It appears the filmed version lets Broulard illogically fail to protect his own reputation, with no explanation, in exchange for a more dramatic ending.

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The film Paths of Glory is based off the Humphrey Cobb book of the same name. As you note there is a divergent screenplay with a happier ending. According to producer James B Harris Kubrick chose to have the film end the same way that the book does to preserve its integrity. The reality of the movie is very much the reality of the war.

Broulard explains his reasoning for what he does in his final meeting with Colonel Dax.

Colonel Dax, you're a disappointment to me. You have spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality.

You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command. You're an idealist, and I pity you, as I would the village idiot.

We're fighting a war, a war we've got to win. Those men didn't fight, so they were shot.

You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist that he answer them.

Wherein have I done wrong?

In Broulard's eyes Mireau ordering the artillery to shell his own troops does not mean the men are innocent. The French Army Code at the time stated "discipline is the main strength of armies, it is important that a superior receives a subordinate’s entire obedience and submission at all times." That means you die if ordered to do so.

The book is based on an incident called the Souain Corporals Affair that occurred in March 1915 during World War I. In that event on March 10 the French artillery accidentally shelled part of their own line and the area between the French and German trenches. This was supposed to be a strike against German machine guns in preparation for a morning assault. With the German guns still in place and the ground between the trenches now destroyed, the attack quickly became a slaughter. The remaining French troops refused to leave the trenches.

Division General Géraud Réveilhac ordered the French artillery to fire on their own troops to force them out of the trenches and into an attack. As in the movie and book the artillery commander refused to do so without a written order. General Réveilhac then ordered the company commander Captain Equilbey to produce a list of 24 men that would include six corporals and 18 enlisted men chosen from the two youngest members in every squad. These men would be court-martialed as an example of what happens when you fail to follow orders.

On March 16, 1915 trial was held and all 24 men were sentenced to die. However, the 18 enlisted men received a stay of execution because they had been randomly chosen. Two of the corporals also received a stay after it was determined that they did not hear the order to attack. In the end four corporals were executed on March 17. Two hours after their execution though word reached the camp that the French High Command had commuted the death sentences to forced labor. In the film one soldier from each of the three companies is chosen to be executed for cowardice for refusing to attack the German line.

The four corporals were eventually exonerated in 1934 due to the efforts by relatives of the four. General Réveilhac was eventually relieved of his front line command and moved to a reserve command for the rest of the war. He was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor at the end of the war, France's highest order of military merit. In 1921 as the case became more well known he was condemned even by the military press. He attempted to have a letter published defending his actions but the Minister of War felt it would only bring more attention to the case.

  • That's interesting background, but it doesn't answer the question about the lapse of logic in the film. The film should stand on its own for whatever version of the story it tells. Regardless of real life or the book, the film has Broulard do nothing, with no real explanation. – Witness Protection ID 44583292 Dec 15 '18 at 23:56
  • @WitnessProtectionID44583292 I edited my answer to add a quote from Broulard which explains his actions. His logic is the logic of World War I military command. The men not fighting is the concern. Shoot a few and maybe the rest will follow orders. – Legion600 Dec 16 '18 at 0:43

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