Paths of Glory

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson (based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb)
Voices: Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), Susanne Christian (German singer), Jerry Hausner (Proprietor of café), Peter Capell (Judge), Emile Meyer (Father Dupree), Bert Freed (Sgt. Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Pvt. Lejeune), Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol), Fred Bell (Shell-shock victim), John Stein (Capt. Rousseau), Harold Benedict (Capt. Nichols)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: U.S.
Paths of Glory Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Paths of GloryPaths of Glory was director Stanley Kubrick’s fourth feature and the first in which he demonstrated true and fundamental mastery of film art. His previous three films--Fear and Desire (1953), which he disowned and has been largely unseen as a result, Killer’s Kiss (1955), and The Killing (1956)--were all relatively low-budget genre experiments in which Kubrick honed and adapted the visual acumen he had displayed as a photographer for Look magazine to the motion picture. Kubrick’s cinematic gifts were certainly evident in his previous films, but in streaks and flashes--essentially fragments of genius. In Paths of Glory, it all came together, and watching it is to watch the birth of the one of the greatest filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century.

Based on the 1935 novel by the American Humphrey Cobb, who served in World War I in the Canadian Army, Paths of Glory is the first of Kubrick’s films to deal directly with war, although it would hardly be the last. Set in France in 1916, it establishes most of the major themes that would dominate Kubrick’s cinema for the next four decades, particularly the means by which people are dehumanized, the absurdity of violence, and the domination of individuals by social and political systems. There is a little bit of all his subsequent films built into Paths of Glory, but even if Kubrick had never gone on to make another picture it would certainly stand as one of the greatest war films ever made, a bloody depiction of the brutality of the battlefield and a searing indictment of how those in power manipulate the men in their commend for political ends and personal gain. It is no small surprise that the film was banned in France until the mid-1970s, although Kubrick and his coscreenwriters Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson actually tamed some of Cobb’s more vicious portraits of military power devoid of both rational and moral thought.

True to Cobb’s novel, Kubrick’s film is divided into a tripartite structure, with the centerpiece being the failed (and arguably suicidal) assault by French forces on a German stronghold known as the Ant Hill. The film begins in a massive French chateau that serves as headquarters for the French high command, which makes for a stark contrast with the dank, muddy trenches in which the soldiers fight and die. Kubrick immediately establishes a hierarchy of power and coercion as General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) manipulates the ambitious General Paul Mireau (George Macready) into ordering the assault on Ant Hill, a mission that he will view from comfortable safety hundreds of yards away. The job of actually leading the assault falls on Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who, like Mireau, initially resists the idea as suicide before succumbing to the pressure from those above him. Thus, there is a clear order of accountability, with each man taking his orders and passing it down and those at the bottom ultimately being held responsible.

The middle section of the film depicts the actual assault, which is an unmitigated disaster. Heavily outmanned and outgunned, the French forces are cut to pieces, and when Colonel Dax attempts to rally a second wave of troops, they cower in the trenches and refuse to leave because they know they will be nothing more than cannon fodder. Mireau is outraged, to the point that he tries to bully the battery commander into attacking his own troops who refuse to advance. Given the abject failure of the assault, someone must be held accountable, which ultimately results in three men--one from each unit--being selected to stand trial for cowardice, not because they have necessarily done anything wrong, but simply to play the role of example for the other troops. The men are each selected for different reasons: Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by random lottery, despite the fact that he has already been awarded medals for bravery; Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey) is chosen because he is considered a social degenerate; and Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because he witnessed his drunk company commander Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) accidentally kill one of their own men during an earlier reconnaissance mission and then flee the scene. Thus, there is no rhyme or reason to the men’s selection except that they make convenient scapegoats to hide the bad decisions of the commanders in charge.

The third section of the film depicts the soldiers’ court-martial, where a guilty verdict would mean execution by firing squad. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, demands that he be allowed to serve as their counsel, but the subsequent trial proves to be nothing less than a travesty of justice, a barely disguised charade in which basic procedures are ignored and Dax is not allowed to submit any evidence or bring any witnesses; the outcome had been determined long before anyone stepped foot in the room (the trial’s setting in the vast chateau that opened the film, with its chessboard-like parquet floors, is a telling visual metaphor for the rigged game that threatens to claim three men’s lives). The casting of Kirk Douglas, who was at the height of his stardom and Hollywood power in the late 1950s, made the film possible in terms of securing financing, but his presence is particularly important in underscoring the essentially impotent nature of his character. Dax is certainly presented as a Hollywood protagonist par excellence, embodying the audience’s righteous anger as he rails against the system and maintains a sense of decency and moral order that has no place in the brutally pragmatic military mindset. Yet, by casting Douglas in the role (which is actually a composite of several characters from the novel), Kubrick intensifies the film’s underlying rage because, after all, if Kirk Douglas can’t get justice, who can?

Like Kubrick’s best films, Paths of Glory is an aesthetic tour de force, a true testament to the director’s masterful conception of how to use camera movement to draw us into the story. The film’s centerpiece is a pair of fluid tracking shots (pre-Steadicam) in the trenches, the first of which tracks in front of Mireau as he awkwardly attempts to instill confidence in the troops but only succeeds in demonstrating how the French military class system makes it all but impossible for men of his stature to relate to the soldiers who are but pawns in a game of death. The second tracking shot comes a short time later as Dax prepares to lead the men into battle, and the manner in which it shifts between Dax’s perspective and an externalized shot that captures the unspoken camaraderie between him and his men effectively summarizes the difference between his style of leadership and that of Mireau and Broulard. Dax is an interstitial figure, caught between the generals whose orders he must follow and the soldiers whose lives he holds in his hands. When Kubrick actually takes us out onto the battlefield--a muddy, pocked wasteland rimmed with barbed wire and smoking corpses--it is as powerful a damnation of war as has ever been committed to celluloid, a potent and undeniably modern precursor to the horrors of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).

However, while commendable for its portrayal of war in all its ugly violence, Paths of Glory is perhaps most powerful as a depiction of human decency in the face of systematic oppression, a far cry from the typical critiques of Kubrick as a “cold” and “calculating” filmmaker whose aesthetic brilliance comes at the price of human feeling. Dax’s commitment to his men is not just moving, but eloquent, and Kubrick fashions an emotional coda at the end where rowdy French troops in a café are quelled by the gentle singing of a frightened German girl (Susanne Christian, who would later marry Kubrick) hauled onstage against her will. There have been various readings of this ending, everything from gross sentimentality to cruel irony, but it seems to me that it is nothing more than a suggestion that, however ugly and brutal the world may be, we are all still human and have some kind of common ground on which we can meet. It may not be enough to stop a war or any other injustice, but it is a reminder that the sins we perpetuate against each other are not inherent, but rather chosen, which is as much of a humanistic cry as any I can imagine.

Paths of Glory Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Paths of Glory is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP $39.95).
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by critic Gary Giddins
  • Excerpt from a 1966 audio interview with director Stanley Kubrick
  • Television interview from 1979 with star Kirk Douglas
  • New video interviews with Kubrick’s longtime executive producer Jan Harlan, producer James B. Harris, and actress Christiane Kubrick
  • French television piece about a real-life World War I execution that partly inspired the film
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film scholar James Naremore
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 26, 2010

    After writing the initial draft of my review, I pulled out my copy of Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor, and Ulrich Ruchti’s excellent book Stanley Kubrick: A Visual Analysis, whose terribly fuzzy, badly contrasted stills from Paths of Glory made me appreciate Criterion’s new Blu-Ray all the more. The 2K image transfer came from a restored 35mm fine-grain master positive supplied by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt and was supervised by Kubrick’s technical assistant Leon Vitali. It is a solid improvement over the previously available DVD from MGM: Better contrast, sharper detail, and a generally brighter image brings out the beauty and complexity of the film’s cinematography. Criterion’s high-definition image allows us to fully appreciate the intricacy and detail of the film’s set design and locations, whether it be the ornate floors in the chateau or the dirt and grit of the battlefield. The image is sharp, clean, and beautifully detailed. It is also presented properly in its intended 1.66:1 aspect ratio, instead of the 1.33:1 open matte presentation on the MGM disc. The monaural soundtrack, presented in lossless linear PCM transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm monaural magnetic track, is likewise excellent despite the limitations of a single channel. The sounds of the battle sequence are particularly impressive, presenting a sense of depth and detail that matches the deep focus photography and relentless tracking shots. The dialogue is always clear, and digital restoration has reduced any ambient hiss or crackling to near nonexistence. Without doubt, this is the best that Kubrick’s masterpiece has looked and sounded in years--probably since its initial theatrical run.
    Film critic Gary Giddins provides another excellent audio commentary for Criterion, as he talks eloquently and in detail about the film’s themes, aesthetic approaches, connections with other Kubrick films, relevance to history, and how it differs from and stays true to the source novel. This is the kind of commentary that deepens one’s appreciation of the film and its accomplishments without overwhelming you with unnecessary trivia and detail. Of course, Kubrick was notorious in his lifetime for refusing to comment on his films, so the fact that Criterion has managed to track down an excerpt from a 1966 audio interview with him is something of a miracle, even if it is extremely short and doesn’t shed much light on the film. We get much more out the new video interviews with Kubrick’s longtime executive producer Jan Harlan (10 min.) and producer James B. Harris (20 min.), both of whom had an intimate working relationship with him and strenuously object to the caricatures of him as a cold, inhuman filmmaker. We also get some insight into Kubrick via a 6-minute interview with his wife, actress Christiane Kubrick, who also plays the German girl at the end of the film. Star Kirk Douglas appears in a lengthy television interview from 1979, and the real-life story of soldiers being executed for cowardice in World War I is explored via a short French television piece.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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