Kirk Douglas did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory.
Kirk Douglas portrays the Colonel in charge of the regiment used by the ambitious and pompous General Mireau (George Macready) to take an impossible to overcome German position. Douglas here portrays one of the few officers in the film who is not an amoral man who cares far more about his own military career than for the welfare of his soldiers. As he is one of the few officers who seems to treat the war and casualties as something to be truly concerned about. Douglas portrays Dax as a man who cares deeply for the lives of his men, although still believes that there is a task that needs to be done.
Douglas takes a fairly simple but effective approach to the part of Dax. He does not really try to portray Dax in any sort of flamboyant fashion which is fairly common in Kubrick's films. Douglas plays it straight and properly so. In the middle of the men who seem almost insane in their manner towards the war, Douglas shows us a man who stands firm in the belief in his men, even if he does need to still follow orders. Douglas says a lot here with very little as even as he agrees to lead the charge on the hill he shows the genuine concern for the lives of his men as well as his own disbelief in his superior officer.
There is an underlying passion and drive always in this performance bringing to life that Dax is a man of action. Douglas importantly though as well even when he is ordering his men to go out on risky scouting maneuvers that there is always a deeply human compassion within Dax. He is never just a man blindly ordering his men about to risk their lives for the war. Douglas importantly in his performance does manage to portray a caring commanding officer even though he still commits to action. It is an important role within the film itself, and Douglas is excellent because he never seems sanctimonious or false. The goodness of his character always comes through as it needs to.
As the film proceeds Douglas stays though as the steadfast moral center of the film who refuses to accept his superior's stance that his men were cowards after the failed attack. Douglas has a quiet and effective intensity as he stands with his men and tries to help the three accused of the cowardice avoid the firing squad. Douglas is terrific representing all of the frustrations felt by the insanity espoused by his superiors who refuse to come to their senses. Douglas is very strong here and even has just the right about of satirical edge to his performance. In just the smallest reactions during the trial scene he can portray the true lunacy behind the charges.
Douglas never portrays the part as sanctimonious and he is able to portray the intelligence and anger behind Dax. After the men are sentenced to death Dax tries his best to make those who caused this to occur suffer as well as he can for their dreadful actions. Douglas's performance always puts forward the extreme hate, and disgust he has for the amoral officers he serves brilliantly. He never makes him seem like just a rebel, or a pointlessly angry man though. He is always firm and proper in his characterization making his moments where he tells his superior just exactly what he thinks extremely powerful. Douglas is absolutely truthful in this as he makes Dax truly the better man.
This may not be Douglas's most complex character, but this is one of his very best performances. Colonel Dax is an essential character in the film as he is the conscience of the entire film who stands against the structured lunacy of the military heads. Douglas keeps the honesty, and goodness of his character to life without ever being boring, dull, or seem in any way false. Douglas is able to genuinely finds the heart of his character, and becomes the heart of the film realistically throughout the film. Technically speaking it might not be the most showy performance in the film, but Douglas succeeds entirely within his performance achieving in finding the incredible power in his character's passion throughout the film.