The Film: 5/5
France, 1916. The first World War is in full swing. French army general Paul Mireau (George Macready) is swayed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) into sending his troops on a suicide mission to capture a German stronghold known as “the Anthill” with the promise of a promotion if the mission succeeds. Mireau orders Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead the assault, but the colonel is reluctant to do so as he is convinced it will only lead to failure. Dax is proven and the mission results in many soldiers killed and no victory. An enraged Mireau demands that one hundred men from the division be court-martialed so that he might save face and escape being held responsible for ordering the disastrous attack. Broulard manages to negotiate the number of men to be punished down to three, one man chosen at random from each company of the division: Corporal Phillipe Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel), and Private Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey). Believing the trial to be a farce and a disgrace to the men who lay down their lives every day at the whims of a handful of glory-seeking lunatics, Dax volunteers to act as counsel for the three soldiers. Once the trial is over and the men are found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad, the destructive ambition that resulted in the futile assault is revealed.
Paths of Glory, the fourth film from the cinematic genius that was - and will shall ever be - Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most gripping and pissed-off anti-war films ever made. It is fueled by equal amounts of sadness and rage and refuses to sugarcoat its message that there is no such thing as victory in war. It makes monsters out of us all. Sam Fuller made war films where, as the man himself often put it, the only true glory was surviving. Kubrick’s film, which he adapted with novelist/screenwriter Calder Willingham (The Graduate) and crime writer extraordinaire (and Kubrick’s scribe on his previous film, the noir classic The Killing) Jim Thompson from the 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, doesn’t contain a shred of actual glory.
It’s all a hollow façade erected by egomaniacal chicken hawk bastards who view war as nothing more than a game of chess. They know the men they send deliberately into harm’s way are almost certain to die, but all that matters to them is getting to boast about their victories and show off the medals and ribbons on their uniform. If a soldier is able to survive but with severe psychological damage, they are written off as weak and a danger to the morale of the others. In a time of war, human beings aren’t allowed to be human: shut up, follow your orders, and if you live to see the next day…. here are your new orders.
Paths runs a blistering 88 minutes; the first act concludes with the catastrophic assault on the Anthill that the ambitious little toad Mireau ordered but whose failure he cowardly backs away from accepting. Instead he chooses to blame the men whose only job is to follow his commands no matter how insane they happen to be. 3, 100, what difference does it make? The pathetic general just wants to show off what a big man he views himself as and set an example for any other poor bastard who dares to demonstrate free will under his authority. For the soldiers who must live and die at Mireau’s insistence, the only way out is the cold, lonely embrace of the grave the paths of glory lead to in the 1751 Thomas Gray poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” that gave the novel and film its title.
The Anthill assault is one of the film’s most thrilling set-pieces, shot with tight-fisted tension and epic scope by the celebrated German cinematographer Georg Krauss as a grim, living tableau of horrific death and madness, given an infuriating twist when that cold-blooded maniac Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men to force them out of hiding in a trench because they won’t willingly die in a hail of gunfire for the benefit of the general’s massive ego. The fear is made overpowering and sickening through Eva Kroll’s frenzied editing and the authenticity of Ludwig Reiber’s impeccable, lived-in art direction.
The court-martial doesn’t occupy but a small chunk of the film’s running time because it never matters as much to the narrative as the events that led to this shameless kangaroo court and how its outcome affects everything that comes after. Kirk Douglas (whose production company Bryna backed the project) gives one of the finest performances of his career as the colonel whose loyalty resides with the men under his command and not with blind patriotism, but it is the actors chosen to play the three dutiful but unfortunate soldiers singled out for punishment who you will remember: Ralph Meeker, a noir icon for his portrayal of the hard case private eye Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, portrays the most level-headed of the trio with quiet fury; Joe Turkel (Blade Runner), later to play the spectral bartender Lloyd in Kubrick’s The Shining, gives his young private Arnaud the restless energy and helpless anger of a caged animal; and the gradual evolution of Timothy Carey’s Ferol from cool customer to emotional wreck feels all too real. Their final scene before the firing squad is one of the few scenes in the Kubrick canon to bring me to tears.
George Macready and Adolphe Menjou duel it out for the title of Paths of Glory’s biggest soulless son of a bitch hiding behind rank and reward, but it’s Macready whose bombastic posturing and dramatic proclamations make his Mireau a prime target for a battlefield fragging. Menjou’s character is permitted to be gentler about his cruelty masquerading as honor, but he still gets his comeuppance when Dax goes on him in a searing climatic speech that definitely deserves inclusion in Douglas’ greatest screen moments. He and Kubrick worked together only one more time after Paths – the iconic epic Spartacus – but for a brief time in film history it must have been exciting for audiences to witness the perfect union of actor and filmmaker, Douglas the granite-jawed movie star dominating the screen on celluloid captured for all time by the man whose later films, from Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey to A Clockwork Orange, understandably had many declaring him the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. Kubrick’s gifts as a cinematic storyteller were already in place by the time cameras rolled on Paths of Glory, a clenched fist of screen combat and a potent political statement that remains relevant to this very day.
Paths of Glory comes to Region B courtesy of Eureka! Entertainment as part of their astounding Masters of Cinema collection and the 1080p high-definition transfer isn’t at all different from the one overseen by the Criterion Collection – which was scanned and restored in 2K resolution from a 35mm fine-grain master positive from the collection of UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt - for their 2010 Region A release. The 1.66:1 pillarboxed transfer is mostly free of dirt, grit, and scratches due to the extensive restoration efforts, although an occasional example of print damage that couldn’t be digitally removed remains. Close-up shots boast the finest improvement in the quality of details. Black levels are impressive and deep. Paths can’t possibly look any better than this. On the sound side of things, the English LPCM 2.0 audio track is a terrific reproduction of the film’s original monaural mix with dialogue that comes through very clear, gun and cannon fire sound effects presented without distortion, and balanced volume levels. English subtitles have also been included.
Eureka dispenses with the supplements from the Criterion Blu-ray in favor of some new bonus material recorded this year. First up is an audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin. From there we proceed to three video interviews: film scholar Peter Kramer (14 minutes), filmmaker Richard Ayoade (23 minutes), and critic and author Richard Combs (10 minutes). Being a fan of Ayoade’s work on the big and small screens, I wasn’t surprised to find his insightful discussion of Paths of Glory to be the most entertaining extra.
The extras produced for Criterion’s release actually featured people who were involved with the film, which gives that disc the edge. There’s only so much scholarly dissection a person can take. Eureka has also provided an isolated music and effects audio track. Finally, we have the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes), presented in full-frame standard-definition as opposed to the high-definition display on the Criterion disc.
Being one of their Masters of Cinema releases, Eureka has enclosed a special booklet with the Blu-ray that includes a recent essay about Paths of Glory written by Glenn Kenny, an article about the dawning of independent cinema (with a focus on Kubrick and his early films) from the spring 1959 issue of Film Quarterly, viewing notes, and disc credits.
Watching Paths of Glory for the first time made me feel nauseated as it proceeded at full speed directly towards its heart-wrenching finale, but something tells me that Stanley Kubrick would have wanted it that way. Paths is a masterpiece that has been given a stunning Region B Blu-ray as part of Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema line. Highly recommended.