With Halloween just a few days away, The Criterion Collection once again shows its mastery of the art of thematically perfect seasonal releases. On Tuesday, they published a film capable of inducing mind-numbing shock and bone-chilling terror to all but the most jaded and calloused of viewers. No, I’m not talking about House (although that too just came out on October 26!) Rather, I’m referring to an early work of Stanley Kubrick from 1957: Paths of Glory.
Though one would never confuse this stark, incisive account of an episode from World War I for a horror flick, I think my contention that this is indeed a scary movie stands up to any challenge. Its central premise is to illustrate the utter cheapness and triviality of human life on a mass scale when the harsh and calculating logic that rationalizes war takes hold in a society.
One has only to do a casual historical study on the futility and misery endured by the wretched soldiers who fought on both sides of World War I to understand that Paths of Glory, though fictionalized, was probably not at all off the mark in presenting an unvarnished look at the kinds of calculations that contributed in one way or another to the death of over 9,000,000 combatants. I’d put up with the worst that Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers combined were capable of dishing out in order to spare our world from the kind of monsters who engineered that kind of mass murder.
The story, set in France, revolves around a colonel who is given a mission that his commanding officers know will result in the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of men, for an objective having less to do with gaining the upper hand in combat than with managing the public relations and political games that prop up popular support, or at least tolerance, of the war. Kirk Douglas grabs hold of the lead role of Colonel Dax, who walks the tightrope between open insubordination of his orders and doing what he can to minimize the destructive impact on his troops from carrying them out.
At this point in his career, Douglas was a big star at the height of his powers, and I have to think that this was a performance that he took special pride in, because Paths of Glory most definitely cut against the grain of a typical late-50s war movie, and Douglas was the prime mover behind this project which proved to be controversial but is undoubtedly more respected and relevant today than most of its run of the mill, sentimentally heroic military-themed contemporary releases.
Another reason for Douglas to feel greater than usual satisfaction for putting Paths of Glory on the screen was the opportunity it gave to Stanley Kubrick to cement his reputation as a major emerging film-maker. Though this was still a low-budget project, it hardly feels like one, so proficient is Kubrick’s directorial skill.
Already one sees Kubrick’s prowess at staging impressive visuals on a large and complex scale, whether a furiously paced battle charge across bombed-out wastelands or the cruel formal efficiency of a military firing squad on the grounds of a palace. This famous sequence, of Colonel Dax readying his troops to leap out of the trench and into the teeth of enemy machine gun fire, is just one of several incredible set pieces that make Paths of Glory an unforgettable experience.
As we’ve come to expect, the Blu-ray image is crisp and beautifully rendered, and my hunch is that the DVD is likewise a very satisfying upgrade for those who’ve had to content themselves with earlier mediocre transfers of this classic.
As a narrative, the story is marvelously focused and efficient, almost to a fault, since the dialog wastes little time in spelling out each character’s emotions, hypocrisies and underlying motivations. I have to admit that the first time I watched the film, this aspect clashed a bit with my general preference for a more nuanced style.
Though the story depicts the French army of the 1910s, Colonel Dax and the three infantrymen who get singled out as scapegoats to supposedly restore the honor of the military seem more like American types of the 1950s. And it doesn’t help things on my end to hear French soldiers speaking English, especially after watching Wooden Crosses, to me the definitive World War I film (though curiously unmentioned in Paths of Glory‘s accompany booklet when it cites other great films based on that war.)
As a result, some of the characterizations occasionally came across as heavy-handed or a bit too obvious at first. Surely the generals would not be so transparent in their manipulations, nor would the lower-ranking soldiers state their fears and anxieties so plainly in real life, would they? But subsequent viewings softened that objection on my part, as I realized it made for more efficient story telling, especially to a 1950s audience that was probably accustomed to a lot more “rah rah” patriotic schmaltz in their war movies. And given the strain the soldiers were under, and the generals’ ability to operate with impunity in their privileged circles, it even seemed a bit more plausibly realistic the second time through.
Besides the usual impressively illustrated booklet and essay, the disc also offers insightful background material including interviews with Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick and members of Kubrick’s inner circle, including his wife Christiane who appears briefly in Paths of Glory‘s remarkably moving final scene. Given Kubrick’s broad and dedicated following among today’s cinephiles, I imagine that Paths of Glory is one of this year’s most widely anticipated Criterion releases, one that most readers here were already aware of and had in mind as a “must-get” when its release was announced a few months ago.
But if you are at all wavering, let me clear up your doubts: add Paths of Glory to your collection! This is a powerful, effective indictment of the brutal abuses of power exercised all too often in this world by the Masters of War – regardless of how civilized they may appear, or how necessary the deaths they’ve engineered may be to the ultimate success of their plans. Watch it, ponder it, let it scare you a bit, then do what you can to prevent the madmen from taking over once again.