Stanley Kubrick’s masterful anti-war film Paths of Glory is the absolute opposite of an epic. Kubrick needs only a handful of locations and major characters to create a forceful condemnation of a paradigm underpinning the institution of war.
It’s also the film where Kubrick hit his stride, moving away from thrifty film noirs to more carefully composed films, and Paths of Glory displays the formal rigor and compelling storytelling that he would build his legendary career on.
Kirk Douglas stars as Col. Dax, the leader of a French regiment embroiled in trench warfare against Germany in World War I. Dax has been commanded by his superior, Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready), to lead an offensive in an attempt to capture a German stronghold nicknamed the “Anthill,” but Dax protests, convinced that it’s a suicide mission for his men.
Little does Dax know that behind-the-scenes posturing and ambition have all but condemned his men, with Mireau’s superior, Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), giving a veiled promise of promotion along with the command to launch the doomed mission.
After the mission fails miserably and Mireau even goes so far as to order an artillery attack on his own retreated troops, he continues the madness by announcing plans to execute a man (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey) from each company for their cowardice. The fact that the mission may have very well been impossible is not a deterrent.
Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, defends the men in an impromptu trial, but it’s clear from the outset that it’s a joke, with Mireau charging ahead to advance his career with no regard for the human life that surrounds him.
Kubrick’s film is not subtle in its denunciation of power gone amok, but it’s a thoroughly effective film because it aspires to be more than just an angry polemic. Every scene is carefully crafted, from the elegant tracking shots through the trench to the raw and unflinching inevitability of the executions.
Kubrick has often been labeled (sometimes derisively; sometimes not) as a cold director and though his characteristic distance from the material can be seen in Paths of Glory, there’s a passionately beating heart at the center. The film takes aim at the horrors of war and doesn’t miss its target.
The Blu-ray Disc
Paths of Glory is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Like its upcoming release of fellow United Artists/MGM property The Night of the Hunter, Criterion has rescued the film from home video aspect ratio hell, finally presenting it in its intended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The previous MGM DVD was presented in a full frame 1.33:1 format, which wasn’t awful as it was the open matte print of the film, not a pan-and-scan job, but it is nice to see the film presented as it would have been in a theater.
Speaking of the MGM release, Criterion’s high def presentation improves upon it dramatically, breathing new life into every frame of the film. The kind of omnipresent murkiness that was present in the previous DVD has been replaced by images with an extraordinary amount of depth and detail, even in darker scenes. The black-and-white images show impressive consistency and range, with a wide array of shades of gray providing excellent detail. Damage previously seen on the print is almost nonexistent here.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that obviously doesn’t have much range, but features a very clean and clear mix, with dialogue driving most of the track. Bursts of artillery shelling or gunfire are represented faithfully, free from any edgy moments.
Most of the supplements Criterion presents here are interviews. A visual essay on Kubrick’s burgeoning style would have been a nice inclusion, but what we get here is quite good. There are new interviews with producer James B. Harris, Kubrick’s widow Christiane, who also is the only woman who stars in the film, and longtime Kubrick executive producer Jan Harlan, who focuses more on Kubrick’s career as a whole.
Vintage extras include a brief audio-only interview with Kubrick from 1966 and a 1979 TV interview from the program Parkinson with Kirk Douglas. There’s also an excerpt from a French news program from 1997 that looks at a real World War I execution that partly served as inspiration for the film.
Giving a more academic look at the film are an audio commentary by critic Gary Giddins and an essay by scholar James Naremore in the included booklet.
The Bottom Line
Paths of Glory is one of Kubrick’s finest works, and with the underwhelming results of some Kubrick Blu-rays (A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket), it’s nice to see the film given the grade-A treatment.