“Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.” — Robert Frost
There are many avenues available that will lead travelers to that moment in a special realm where they receive praise and honor for their efforts. Yet as we are reminded in the last scene of Patton, that moment is always fleeting. Sometimes that moment is marked by heroism, bravery, or some Herculean accomplishment. Other times, actions are remembered as having shown cowardice in the face of the enemy. No other form of human endeavor provides more opportunities for both than war.
The Criterion Collection will release Paths of Glory on DVD, October 26, 2010, adding to their already impressive inventory of classic and contemporary films. The transfer from film to disc was supervised by Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick’s technical assistant. Vitali’s efforts are detailed in a sixteen-page booklet that accompanies the DVD and features an interesting and informative essay by James Naremore about the movie’s plot and action.
Stanley Kubrick started out as an apprentice photographer for Look magazine in 1946 and later became a full time staff photographer there. He did three documentary films in the early fifties and in 1957 did Paths of Glory, his fourth feature film. Even the casual viewer can see the influence of his still photography experience in almost every scene.
Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Kubrick embraces execution for cowardice (by firing squad) here — as well as the arrogance of officers. Private Eddie Slovik was the last American executed by the United States for cowardice and that happened in Word War II about the time of the Battle of the Bulge, as Hitler’s panzers attacked in the Hurtgen Forest. Slovik was arrested for his actions. In Paths of Glory, the French soldiers executed were chosen to die, one by drawing lots, as representatives of their inadequate unit.
Here‘s another irony of war. It’s unimaginable that in today’s society, an American serviceperson would be chosen at random for capital punishment. We send our young men to die in battle but wouldn’t think of drawing lots to hang one. Apparently, in The Great War, this was acceptable, at least by French standards (as was a superior officer slapping an enlisted man).
A penetrating study of several characters, their motives, and reactions to life and war, Paths of Glory withstands the test of time — a true classic. One battle scene is enough to make the necessary points as battlefield technology changes, the motives and actions of men repeat themselves in each generation. If you haven’t seen Paths of Glory, now is the time. If you have seen it, see it again in a new light. For me, it ranks right up there with Patton and Schindler’s List on my short list of great war movies.
[The Criterion Collection release of Paths of Glory bonus features include interviews with the director, producer, and actress, Christiane Kubrick, and a commentary by film critic Gary Giddins. In addition, a French television piece about an actual execution that influenced the film is shown.]