Criterion // 1957 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 26th, 2010
It explodes in the no-man's land no picture ever dared cross before!
After reasonable success with his first three B-pictures, director Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon) set out to make a war film based on Humphrey Cobb's successful 1915 novel, Paths of Glory. As with his previous films, he wrote the screenplay with the help of crime novelist Jim Thompson, but they found no takers. The Killing, caught the attention of Kirk Douglas (The Final Countdown), who decided to take on the new film with his own production company, Bryna Productions. He would star and, on a relatively meager budget (of which a third went to the star's salary), Paths of Glory finally came to fruition. So began the journey of Kubrick from B-level director to artistic giant. It's an amazing film, one of the best war pictures ever produced, and looks brilliant on Blu-ray.
In the depths of WWI trench warfare, a French battalion led by Colonel Dax (Douglas) has been tasked with an impossible mission: to take "The Anthill," a piece of land the Germans hold with an iron fist. When the battle ends for the French in slaughter and retreat, the commanding general wants to make an example of the cowards who ran away. Three men are charged with cowardice, and conviction means death, but Dax knows his men are brave and he will fight with all he has to do what is right.
When General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou, The Sorrows of Satan) first learns of the plan to besiege The Anthill, he refuses, calling the mission impossible. When the idea of a medal and a promotion come into play, though, it suddenly becomes not only doable, but an utter certainty. When Broulard presents the plan to Dax, he rightly refuses, knowing full well the toll it will take on his already depleted, shell-shocked men. But Broulard threatens Dax with relieving him of his post and, of course, the mission is on. Dutifully, his men follow him into battle, but in their retreat, any bravery they may have shown in the past becomes nil.
To the brass, the soldiers don't matter at all. They are simply pawns to die in the name of their general's glory. In the general's mind, there are only two ways the soldiers could have shown bravery: either they take the hill or they all die trying. Their retreat, regardless of circumstance, shows unquestionable cowardice. Worse than that, failure means no promotion for the general, and for that, the soldiers must pay. Three soldiers pay the price, but not as individuals. Their trial and execution serve as an example to the rest of the troops, who must learn the consequences of so-called cowardice that amounted to an order of mass suicide.
To the individuals whose lives are on the line, however, this is no example, it's murder. They have been chosen at relative random and they certainly don't feel like cowards. They've fought and bled with their fellow soldiers, watching friends die after seeing their bodies blown to bits. If the generals have experienced such violence, it was so long ago that they have no connection to it any longer and either don't understand or don't care about the sacrifices the soldiers have to make every day in the trenches. In the palatial estates where the brass resides sacrifices are made in the name of prestige, abstract losses, and numbers.
In Paths of Glory, Kubrick starts to show for the first time the themes and imagery he would ride to his legendary status. Long tracking shots, opulent set design, and especially his use of the waltz will feel familiar. Thematically, the callous inhumanity of hierarchy and the futile struggle of one man to make a difference in the face of a mysterious and corrupt bureaucracy are often present in his films. Here, they are right up front, exemplified by the Broulard's relationship with Dax and Dax's relationship with his men. The futility of the situation is intentionally frustrating and cold, but Kubrick pulls a little trick on the audience. In the end, after the sham of a trial is over, the men are dead, and we're left feeling empty, Kubrick brings us to the final scene. We open in a bar full of drunken French soldiers when the bartender carts a young captive German woman (Susanne Christian, later Christiane Kubrick, the director's future wife) up onto a stage and forces her to sing a song. The soldiers hoot and holler, and from the looks of it, you wonder whether they'll transfer the degradation they've suffered onto her. But when she starts to sing, and she's no professional, her feeling and her fear come out in the music and the soldiers feel it, weeping right along with her. It's a moment of emotional warmth that would prove rare in Kubrick's work, but makes for quite a heartbreaking finish of this brilliant film.
It should come as no surprise when I say that the Blu-ray of Paths of Glory is another beautiful release from Criterion. The newly restored high-definition transfer is brilliant. Bright and clear throughout, the black and white contrast is striking, beautiful at every turn. The detail in the frame is enhanced way beyond any previous release; the print just shines. Criterion has thankfully retained the single channel audio, and it is uncompressed and is as full and as bold as it ever has been. The balance between the music and the dialog is perfect; there is absolutely nothing negative I could say about the technical details of this disc.
They haven't provided the greatest slate of supplements in their history, but what's here is still quite interesting. We start off with an audio commentary with critic Gary Giddins. It's as detailed as any of Criterion's commentary tracks, but he's a little less clinical and tells more engaging stories than usual. So, for me, it's somewhat more enjoyable than I usually find their commentaries. The bulk of the remaining extras are in the form of interviews. The most fun is a thirty minute television spot from 1979 with Kirk Douglas, in which he discusses his career as a whole, with quite a bit of information about Paths of Glory. The man tells a great story, no doubt about that. A 1966 film with Kubrick is revealing in many ways. When discussing his wife, he wishes he could cast her in another film, but she would only agree if he wrote a decent, substantial female part. He recognizes, up to that point, he hadn't yet, and in the forty-plus years until his death, he never did. Three other interviews, with Kubrick's longtime executive producer Jan Harlan, producer John E. Harris, and Christiane Kubrick, are interesting, but less essential. A trailer and a shoddily-made, but historically relevant French television spot about the incident that inspired the story round us out.
Much has been written on how Paths of Glory is an anti-war film, but I disagree. Kubrick doesn't make any definitive statement about the necessity or morality of war; instead, he speaks on justice and inhumane power balance, with war as a natural setting. Whatever you think about its meaning, know that Paths of Glory is an amazing film, featuring some of the most striking imagery, and has never looked better than it does on Criterion's Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated