In the movies, the First World War has always been Hell. Even a film such as D.W Griffiths’ Hearts of the World (1918), which was conceived as a propaganda piece to encourage America into the conflict – and which can be viewed, sans music, here – has more despair in it than derring-do. An opening title observes that “Brass bands and clanging sabers make very fine music, but let us remember there is another side of war.” Then we get plenty of that other side of war: trenches, divided families and attempted rape.

And so began a tradition stretching forward through J’accuse (Abel Gance, 1919) and All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), all the way to Spielberg’s War Horse (2011). A few directors have tried to lift us above the mud and blood of the conflict, with stirring aviation pictures such as Wings (William Wellman, 1927), Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, 1930) and, best of all, The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930). But even these tales of high adventure are anchored in melancholy. All three of ‘em are mostly relationship dramas in which at least one half of the relationship ends up breathing his last.

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) certainly lives up to this tradition. Its title, borrowed from the novel it is based on, comes from a line of Thomas Gray poetry: “Paths of glory lead but to the grave.” And there, in a way, you have the entire film. The paths of glory, in this case, are being walked by the starched and starred generals back at operation headquarters. The graves, however, belong to the soldiers fighting on the front lines.

One of those soldiers is Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax, an officer in the French army. He and his men are given what is basically an impossible mission: to capture a fortified position known as the “Anthill” from the Germans. So why try? For Dax, it’s orders. For his superior, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready), it’s ambition and the possibility of a promotion. And for his superior, Major General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), it’s… well, we assume that it’s ambition too, but he hides it so carefully under a mattress of charming platitudes and witty asides that it’s not always easy to tell. Menjou, a veteran of the War who was wary of signing up for an anti-war movie, may not have enjoyed Kubrick’s fastidious methods, but his Broulard is one of the greatest monsters in cinema – precisely because he is so likeable.

The film starts and ends around the grounds of what is meant to be a French château, but is actually a German schloss. At the start, the conversation between Broulard and Mireau that leads to the attack on the Anthill. At the end, a heinous show-trial of three soldiers who stand accused of cowardice after the attack inevitably fails. These scenes, although occasionally a little too arch, are by turns biting and harrowing. Or both, in the case of Dax’s speech in defence of his men, one of Douglas’s finest moments on screen. “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.”

Yet it is the middle section – the fighting part – that really stands out. The camera moves at waist-height through the lines of men in the trenches, taking in every face and every sandbag, before it swoops ceaselessly across the battlefield as the same men advance into German gunfire. The ground is long and pockmarked. The bombs send mud and smoke high into the air. It’s still a stunningly realistic sequence, sixty-odd years of cinema later. Apparently, Kubrick spent days preparing the ground with coils of barbed wire and planted explosives.

This technical virtuosity – and already, at the age of twenty-nine, Kubrick was a virtuoso – wasn’t for its own sake. He was opposed to that sort of thing. No, what Paths of Glory achieves, for all its cynicism, is to highlight the heroism of war amid the horrors of war. Some of the men are braver than others and many of them act out of fear; it would be patronising to suggest anything else. But there’s definitely a tragic heroism in their climb over the top and onwards. As Kubrick said, his target was not the fighting soldier: “It is certainly not a film either for or against the army it portrays. At most, the film is against war…”

All of this is expressed clearly in the final scene. Dax’s soldiers, their three comrades just executed, sit in a bar awaiting their next deployment. A German girl is dragged onto the stage to sing for them. At first, they holler and pull suggestive faces. But then, as the song progresses, they quieten down and some begin to weep. It’s this that makes Paths of Glory different from Kubrick’s later forays into war, such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). It’s not quite so hopeless.

This is the seventh entry in ConservativeHome’s political Film Club, after The Great McGinty (1940),Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Z (1969), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Day of the Dead (1985) and If…. (1968).