Release: 19th September 2016
In the French front lines of World War I, after giving the order for an impossible and disastrous mission to capture a nearby stronghold, the upper ranks move to save face by having three randomly selected soldiers held and tried for cowardice under pain of death. Their leader, Colonel Dax (in a powerhouse performance by Kirk Douglas) a former lawyer in civilian life, handles their defence against overwhelming odds.
When Paths of Glory first reached cinemas back in 1957, French authorities blew a top. Lambasted as “subversive”, “unpatriotic” and “dangerous”; many saw Kubrick’s anti-war narrative as a pointed attack on France and her battalions. What David ‘The Wire’ Simon would later find in it is a poignant fable about the oppressive scapegoat tactics of middle management and the battle for survival in the one versus the conglomerate. It is a pertinent reading of the text, as Paths of Glory really does fit in with Kubrick’s individualist battle cry; one that would echo through his entire career.
There is a noticeable pace to Paths of Glory that would all but disappear by the time Kubrick reached his next project, Spartacus. As Richard Ayoade notes in his supplementary interview, Kubrick seems to fly through scenes four times the speed of what would become his norm. Paths of Glory was and is the closest we would come to seeing Kubrick take on the court room drama, but even in the 15 minutes he spends in that field is some of the most visually arresting and emotionally striking the genre has ever seen. From the split focus shots to the indulgent tracking with Kirk Douglas’ rousing monologue; it is proof why they call old Stanley the master, and for good reason. In fact, Paths of Glory, in spite of its moral complexity and grandiose villainy (Gen. Mireau comes complete with twiddly moustache), is an absolute smorgasbord of gorgeous camerawork. This is a film that tells two stories; close your eyes and it is a personal and heartbreaking tale of wartime patsies. Close your ears and is a ghostly and opulent opera. Put them together and Paths of Glory has more in common with a Greek tragedy or Shakespeare than it does with any Sands of Iwo Jima or Sergeant York. That being said, it still remains one of the most important and authentic wartime commentaries known to film.
One complaint remains that characters are a tad too interchangeable for serious emotional connection. Kubrick’s penchant for amplified expression means that actors such as Timothy Carey seem more like cartoon characters than soldiers on the verge of execution. But strong emotions do abide, and they would have to for the film to have such a legacy. Many reference Christiane Kubrick’s beautiful (in every way) performance of ‘The Faithful Hussar’ as the film’s emotional gut punch, and it really is something special, but the true tearjerker is in the lightening fast exchange between Private Paris and Lieutenant Roget before they part ways. That ‘moment of crucifixion’ apology just rips you up inside. In a single moment, Kubrick manages to coax something true out of his actors, and shows us that at the bottom of it all, these are just men lost in a whirlwind of control. The entire futility of everything that has led to this point comes to a roaring conclusion in this shattering scene.
Aside from Lolita, Paths of Glory is the last time Kubrick-lite would make a film. This is the director at his most immediately accessible, but also at his most brazen. He would revisit the themes of war a number of times, but Paths of Glory still feels like the most intimate effort. For that reason alone it sets a standard many would try, and fail, to imitate. There is a story that says Spielberg chose to screen Paths of Glory’s song sequence to some dinner guests on the day Kubrick died. It would make sense for him to commemorate his friend in such a way. Not only because the lyrics of the song talk of death and love, but because Paths of Glory carries the soul of its director; a man who was honest, poetic, an independent humanist who in exploring the worst of the human condition, would more than often unearth its power and splendour as well.
Film Grade: A-
Eureka are very keen to tap into the academia of the film, whilst also ensuring it has an engaging and emotional aspect. Peter Kramer covers the history of the film, offering context and insight. Adrian Martin talks about form, and Richard Ayoade’s elegant narrative comes at the film from a fan boy angle. Together they work beautifully, alone than can be a tad dry.
The rest of the features are worth a look, but it is the – as always – accompanying booklet which brings Paths of Glory to life most. Eureka are kings of the Blu-Ray booklet, and the one that features with Paths of Glory is one of their best yet.
Special Features Grade: B
Paths of Glory is a rather distilled version of who Kubrick would become and what he would represent as a filmmaker. If one were to trace his voice back to a specific film, you could argue that Paths of Glory is a much stronger candidate than previous effort The Killing.