Criterion Discovery: Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory (Spine #538) is a 1957 American humanist anti-war film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was initially released by Criterion in October of 2010. Paths of Glory is one of three Kubrick films currently in the collection, the other two being The Killing (Spine #575) and Spartacus (Spine #105.)
Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) goes up against the top officials in the French army when his own soldiers are charged with cowardice, a crime punishable by death, when they fail to complete an impossible mission in World War I. What follows is a harrowing and darkly beautiful look into human desperation and the absurdity of war.
War, and every permutation of the subject, has been dissected and explored in great length throughout the history of art. Whether it be in ancient cave paintings or in modern novels, films, and television, war is a constant. It can be supremely difficult to craft a film about war that is not just glazing over the same themes and subject matter that has been dealt with numerous times before with other filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick is not one to be derivative and phone it in. Paths of Glory is the proof. Paths is a wholly original and staggering masterpiece that is often unfairly overlooked when talking about the repertoire of one Stanley Kubrick. Paths of Glory could easily stand its own not only against much of the filmography of its director, but against most movies in general.
Every frame of the movie works. Kirk Douglas brings a true gravitas, an unshakable and commanding screen presence, to the film in a way that only Douglas could in his prime. Kubrick, though only being twenty nine when making the film, directs with the skill and confidence of a seasoned pro. The documentary style he uses for battle scenes (a style he would later refine in films like Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket) is beautifully on display here. His Ophuls-esque tracking shots and use of framing capture the awful grittiness and raw power of war and bureaucracy gone wrong. Kubrick himself has delved into the darkest heart of man with war in many of his other films like Full Metal Jacket and even Barry Lyndon but never quite with the gut wrenching poignancy of Paths of Glory.
At one point in the movie, one soldier says to another “If it’s death that you’re really afraid of why should you care about what it is that kills you?” Like some of Kubrick’s later work (2001, Dr. Strangelove) Paths of Glory is interested in big themes like death, man’s futility in the world, and the constant violence that perpetuates itself through the time. Yet, Paths differs in that it’s a much warmer and down to Earth film that is not only concerned with big concepts, but also people and their right to live. It’s nothing short of masterful.
As with almost all Criterion editions, the Paths of Glory Criterion Blu-Ray is filled with wonderful extra features. While it may not be one of Criterion’s strongest editions in terms of extras, there is still a ton of great stuff. It contains some terrifically insightful interviews with Kirk Douglas, executive producer Jan Harlan, and Kubrick himself. There is also a fantastic audio commentary from film critic Gary Giddins. Paths may not have the richest collection of extra features, but it more than makes up for it in the crisp digital transfer. This film is older than most people I know, but it still looks fresher and clearer than most modern films released today.
Paths of Glory is personally my all-time favorite war film. It is concise, brutal, beautiful, and riveting. The Stanley Kubrick many have come to know and love may not have started to truly blossom in the public sphere until a few years after the release of Paths, but this is living proof that Kubrick had incredible talent from the start. There is not a wrong moment in the film. Paths of Glory is a crackling and incendiary masterpiece that will continue to live on as long as humans walk this earth and watch movies.
Criterion Grade: A-
Film Grade: A