This was the one that cemented Stanley’s trajectory. I watched it again last week, on a Netflix issued DVD. Not the new Criterion Blu-ray, as I had hoped. Was this only the 2nd time I’ve experienced “Paths of Glory”? I believe so. And the first was probably a copy I taped via VHS off of TCM, or something like that, sometime in the previous century. After the fumbling of “Fear and Desire”, the gaining footing of “Killer’s Kiss”, and the critical acceptance of “The Killing”, “Paths of Glory” truly opened doors. How so? Well, it led him to “Spartacus”, and a big-budget, box office success. Thanks Kirk! However, it’s this one that is the truly brilliant film. Just about everything about it is top-notch.
What a shock to the system, the plot of “Paths of Glory” is. The political corruption, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, that leads to the unjust execution order, for 3 completely innocent men. Kirk Douglas is our voice of reason Colonel Dax, defending Ralph Meeker’s Corporal Paris, Joe Turkel’s Private Arnaud, and Timothy Carey’s Private Ferol. I mean, I guess we can quibble about these distinctly American actors, playing French soldiers during a WW I battle against the Germans. But it is what it is. Sixty years ago, this kind of stuff was common practice. So, I’m certainly not going to focus on that.
“Paths of Glory” has a distinct anti-war slant, and it took some flack for that in 1957. The “anti-war” label used to confuse me a young man. “You mean SOME films are pro-war?”. Of course, I get it now…even if it’s still somewhat bewildering. 1957 was also the year of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which grabbed 7 Oscars, and did boffo box office. I wonder which one would hold up better today? Having not watched David Lean’s epic in quite a while, I can only be certain of the following. “Paths of Glory” delivers at least as much impact in about half the running time.
I knew how “Paths of Glory” would end, but this viewing was still compulsively watchable. In fact, I only intended to roll about half of it when I popped it in days ago, but I couldn’t turn it off. And those trench scenes are classic Kubrick. So powerful, so claustrophobic–a recurring theme throughout Stanley’s career. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to use a “trenches” screen shot to head this remembrance. The purposeful walks of Colonel Dax, and George Macready’s flawed, ambitious, and ultimately evil General Paul Mireau, comprising a dichotomy of justice and perversion. We despise Mireau, as we also hate the drunken Lieutenant Roget from an excellent Wayne Morris. Both men could’ve stopped the madness, but only Roget is given any sort of shot at redemption.
And oh, the sleazy countenance of Adolphe Menjou as Major General Georges Broulard. How you love to hate this man, despite his outward ebullience and gregariousness. Or maybe because of it. I suppose we could also find fault in the wildly diverse representations of the condemned men. But again…standard operating procedure. Plus, all three actors are exceptional. Of course, the striking battle scenes, while limited, are still among the best of their kind. You’ll hear it AND feel it. This completely unnecessary suicide mission, leading to a concocted punishment to “scold” the troops to NEVER exhibit weakness again.
There’s stunning black-and-white cinematography from Georg Krause, and Gerald Fried would supply music for a Kubrick film for the fourth, and final, time. Much has been made over the years, of the final scene of young Christiane Harlan (she would later become, Christiane Kubrick), portraying a captured German girl, being forced to perform a sentimental song before a group of drunken French soldiers in a saloon. Indeed, it is this very epilogue, that pushes “Paths of Glory” into its legendary status. It carries an unquestionable power, as mysterious as it is palpable. Kubrick was almost there with 1956’s “The Killing”, but “Paths of Glory” is the true first masterpiece. More would follow.
KUBRICK coming in February: the roll of eight has been cast, and the winner is 1968’s iconic “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That’s right–the ONE. I can barely stand the wait.