Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war movie is a strong and at times gruelling depiction of the futility of war and the self-interest of the ruling classes. It has arrived on Blu-ray and looks great with a crisp, clean black and white print. If you’ve never seen this early work by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries, now is the time to do so.
The poignantly ironic title sets the tone for the whole of Paths of Glory, which is set purely within a French regiment during WWI. The regiment is given orders to leave their trenches and attack the German “Anthill” (another ironic name). Not only is it a disastrous suicide mission, but the inhuman and incompetent General Mireau (George Macready) has ordered his troops to fire on their own men. As a result of the failure to capture the German position and to improve morale and fighting spirit, Mireau orders the court martial of three men – one from each company. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) opts to defend them, even though he suspects his men will face show trials.
There are stunning set pieces in Paths of Glory. Mireau’s inspection of the men as he wanders along the trenches is superbly handled, especially considering how large and cumbersome film cameras were in those days. The attack on the Anthill is similarly breathtaking, with one very long single take where the camera tracks inexorably left, keeping Kirk Douglas in the centre of the picture like he’s wading through treacle. It’s one of those rare cinematic moments that, once seen, is never forgotten.
The real triumph of the film is its excoriating attack on the ruling classes who were, at the termination of WWI, finally on their way out. Kubrick doesn’t need to depict the Germans: the enemy of the French people is their own leaders. Following the stories of the men who are selected for court martial, and witnessing their incarceration whilst they wonder if they can avoid the firing squad is harrowing and (this is rare for Kubrick) emotionally exhausting. It’s the kind of film you think about for days afterwards.
If Paths of Glory has its faults, it lies with the cast (communicating to actors was never Kubrick’s strength). Overall, Kirk Douglas is compelling and at times brilliant, but there are moments where he makes poor choices. Yes, Dax has to be established as “not like all the other officers”, but it’s inconceivable that a Colonel in the French Army would have strutted up and down during a trial, hands in pockets, like a stereotypical lawyer in a daytime soap. Such moments spoil the illusion. George Macready plays the General like a pantomime villain too, even down to a pronounced scar on his face. Subtle, he isn’t.
Timothy Carey as one of the three privates selected for court martial isn’t especially subtle either, yet he steals every scene he’s in with his haunting, melancholic eyes and gangling appearance. A strange, yet fascinating actor.
Kubrick’s message, that war is futile and never glorious, and the ruling classes care only about themselves, certainly hits home. Paths of Glory, unlike some of Kubrick’s later work, has a social conscience and tells a human story, and as such, it’s still moving and engrossing six decades on.
Extras include interviews with various Kubrick scholars and associates, plus the original theatrical trailer.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Timothy Carey, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Ralph Meeker Director: Stanley Kubrick Writer: Calder Willingham Certificate: PG Duration: 88 mins Released By: Eureka Entertainment Release Date: 19th September 2016