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1957’s Paths of Glory, one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest feature-length movies, is a harrowing, grim masterpiece that has received a new Blu-Ray edition as part of Eureka Entertainment’s The Masters of Cinema series.
Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of a group of French soldiers during World War I that have been tasked to take an enemy position against overwhelming odds. When the attack fails, the general staff accuses the men of cowardice and puts three of them on trial to set an example. It’s up to Dax to try and defend them from the charges.
The movie’s strong anti-war sentiment was very controversial when it was released and the depiction of the French military drew harsh criticisms from many veterans. Nowadays, especially considering it’s almost entirely a cast of American actors not even attempting to speak French or put on an accent for the roles, it’s a lot easier to disconnect yourself from the context and focus on the core themes. Paths of Glory paints in broad strokes – it doesn’t aim for historical accuracy as much as it tries to portray the nature of the war itself and what it can bring out in people.
The staggering disconnect between the high-ranking officers of the general staff and the common soldiers in the trenches is immediately apparent. The generals sit around in opulent chateaus, wearing pristine uniforms covered in medals. They talk of pride, valor and bravery but are more concerned with promotions and their reputation. The responsibility of command is wielded by them like a blunt instrument to achieve their own ambitions, no matter how many lives are lost in the process.
One of the movies most chilling scenes is of the two generals, Paul Mireau (George Macready) and Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) trying to determine how many men should be shot to set an example for the failed attack. They haggle with a matter-of-fact tone, as the number is grudgingly brought down from a hundred to just three.
Dax is the movie’s moral center. He stands by his men to the end and his rank allows him access to the general staff, even though his voice carries the least weight. Over the course of a few days, the colonel witnesses the worst that humanity has to offer, and most of it has nothing to do with the front lines, but rather with what happens behind them.
Paths of Glory is a soul-crushing experience. More than once, you think you can see where the movie is headed, as Dax and his men are seemingly given an out from their nightmare – the big, dramatic courtroom appeal to justice and decency by the colonel would be the prelude to a happy ending in many other films – but it was not meant to be. It’s grueling. When Colonel Dax finally snaps at the face of all this ugliness and cruelty, you completely understand why. The ending is haunting and will leave you with mixed feelings, but it is guaranteed to move you in some way or another.
If the movie has any faults, they’re mostly the product of its age. The suicidal charge, while grand in scope, doesn’t hold up much to scrutiny – you can clearly see that most of the soldiers are just throwing themselves on the ground when they’re supposed to be dying. Apart from that, there are a few odd cuts and scene transitions that end up feeling a bit jarring and one or two uneven performances from minor characters. These can be mostly overlooked, but they’re still noticeable and worth mentioning.
Overall, Paths of Glory is still a fantastic movie. It’s tough to sit through but certainly worthwhile. The new Blu-Ray edition by Eureka Entertainment is available for sale now.
Video interview with Kubrick scholar Peter Kramer
Video interview with filmmaker Richard Ayoade
Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
Original theatrical trailer
Isolated music & effects track