Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson
Based on a Novel by: Humphrey Cobb
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Stanley Kubrick is considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but most discussions and plaudits these days tend to focus on his mid to late work. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining for instance are regularly hailed as pinnacles of the sci-fi and horror genres respectively, as well as cropping up on general lists of the greatest films of all time, and rightly so, but I feel not enough attention is given to his 50's output. His little-seen first feature, Fear and Desire (which I reviewed a few years ago) is no masterpiece and Kubrick was openly embarrassed about it once he grew more successful. His follow up, the film noir Killer's Kiss, is a bit clunky, but shows promise in a couple of great set-pieces. However, after these shaky first steps, Kubrick knocked it out of the park with two incredibly sharp and assured films, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Neither made much of a commercial splash on release, but they gained enough critical acclaim for Kubrick to get attached to the big budget Spartacus, which was the beginning of the director's rise to becoming a household name. These two late 50's titles are well reviewed, but I don't tend to see them crop up on as many 'best of' lists and neither have been packaged with the big Kubrick box sets that have been released (although this is a rights issue more than favouritism). Well, in early 2015, Arrow gave us a great Blu-Ray package containing The Killing alongside Killer's Kiss and now Eureka have turned their attention towards Paths of Glory, delivering the wonderful Blu-Ray release it deserves.
Paths of Glory is based on a true story, set on the front line in France during World War I. A troop of soldiers are ordered to take a German position known as 'the anthill'. It's pretty much a suicide mission, which General Mireau (George Macready) is aware of, but his superior, General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), insists and dangles the carrot of a promotion if he carries it out. Mireau gives the order to the regiment's Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who is even more reluctant, but has no choice in the matter. When the day of the attack comes, the first wave out of the trenches takes heavy casualties and the second refuse to go over the top, so the mission is abandoned. Mireau is furious about this and orders each of the three companies involved to pick one soldier to be executed to make an example of the regiment. Dax is furious about this and, being an esteemed criminal defence lawyer before the war, he requests to defend the three soldiers in the court martial.
Kubrick is often accused of being quite a cold filmmaker, but this is an immensely powerful and bleak story which damns the cold machinations of war. There's little hope for our protagonists as the lowest ranking troops are crushed under foot by their superiors for reasons little known to those in the line of fire. No good reason is given for the attack on the anthill, other than the suggestion that the public want to see some movement forward in the war which had been stuck in stalemate for a while. So, disturbingly, much of the reason for fighting is simply to keep up appearances. This lack of sympathy for the front line soldiers from their superiors is accentuated by the film's setting of talks between the Generals and the facade of the court martial being a grand chateau that the army has taken control of for the war effort.
Another technique Kubrick uses to add to the hopeless and mechanical nature of the soldiers' fate is to really ramp up the pace. Kubrick's later films are generally quite lengthy and fairly slow paced, but this is a lean 88 minutes and feels even shorter. The 3 doomed soldiers are raced through the court martial and Dax is given little chance to give any sort of defence to keep them from the firing squad and the film rushes along too, leaving no room for hope.
As usual, Kubrick's keen eye for visuals shines through. Shot in black and white, the film makes great use of movement with some long tracking shots through the trenches (widened to accommodate the camera equipment). His composition is as striking as ever too, utilising bold lines to great effect. These highlight the inhuman geometric shapes formed by the workings of the army and create the doomed paths of the film's title.
The film is flawlessly made from top to tail, with some superb performances, particularly Douglas, driving the human elements. Its anti-war message may be crystal clear, but there's no point in mincing words when such disregard for human life is taking place. It's an efficient, lean, yet devastatingly powerful, unflinching film. Kubrick made many masterpieces in his lifetime, but I'd argue this might possibly be his most perfectly formed. If you've not seen it, you should remedy that soon, particularly now we have a superb high def version to behold.
Paths of Glory is out on 19th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is excellent as is to be expected from the label.
You get a decent handful of special features too. Here's the list:
- New video interview with Kubrick scholar Peter Kramer
- New video interview with filmmaker Richard Ayoade
- Video interview with film critic Richard Combs
- New audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
- Original theatrical trailer
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
- Isolated music & effects track
The commentary contains a great mix of Martin dissecting/analysing the film and various facts and background information about its production. I thoroughly recommend giving it a listen. The interviews complement this nicely too, offering more thoughts on the film and admiration for it with surprisingly little repetition.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which makes for recommended reading as always.