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Paths of Glory 4K

by Glenn Erickson Aug 16, 2022

Kino boosts the third United Artists Stanley Kubrick classic to 4K clarity, bringing out every nuance of the director’s fine B&W imagery. Kubrick’s major career achievement this time was forming a mutually positive relationship with a big star. Their show is an artful anti-militaristic shout that accuses the French officer corps of willful murder. Producer-star Kirk Douglas gets the best grandstanding soapbox of his career, while Kubrick proves he can shape a dozen fine performances into a mainstream movie masterpiece.


Paths of Glory 4K
4K Ultra HD
KL Studio Classics
1957 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date August 23, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey, Suzanne Christian, Jerry Hausner, Emile Meyer, Bert Freed.
Cinematography: George Krause
Production Designer: Art Director: Ludwig Reiber
Film Editor: Eva Kroll
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson from the book by Humphrey Cobb
Produced by James B. Harris, Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick
Directed by
Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s career arc is the most impressive of the 1950s, rising in just five Hollywood chessboard moves from improvisational filmmaker to director of a 65mm Road Show epic. The Killing garnered critical attention but was still a small film with limited earning potential. Rather than remain in the B-picture ghetto, Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris assembled a package to attract a big star. Impressed by an obvious new talent, Kirk Douglas secured a production deal and the director was off and running again.

Kubrick’s fourth feature Paths of Glory brought him right to the forefront of the industry. It presented major challenges — it was filmed in West Germany, with most of its leading players flown in from Los Angeles. Kirk Douglas claimed a third of the budget as his salary, and Kubrick was practically working for free. Rather than rock the boat, the director gave Douglas exactly what he wanted — big Oscar-bait dramatic scenes — and concentrated on the daunting challenge of making an intelligent anti-war film.

 

Kubrick needed something special to distinguish his war film from routine Hollywood product. The 1950s didn’t really produce anti-war films as we now define them. War was Hell but it also delivered exciting entertainment, hopefully with a little sex to attract female audiences. Even Robert Aldrich’s ‘message’ thriller Attack! hedges its bet. Its depiction of a corrupt and cowardly chain of command finishes by applauding the U.S. Army as a self-healing institution. Paths of Glory tries not to contradict itself. It goes a step farther than Lewis Milestone’s WW1 epic All Quiet On the Western Front. That classic mourns the loss of a generation to a mad slaughter, and demolishes traditional notions of glory and chivalry. Kubrick’s film charges that men in war suffer at the mercy not only of the enemy, but of decadent and cynical Army bureaucracies most interested in power and status.

The French army is deep into trench warfare, making no progress. The utterly unprincipled General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders the incompetent, arrogant General Mireau (George Macready) to take an enemy position called The Anthill at any cost. A lawyer in civilian life, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) accepts Mireau’s order, knowing success is all but hopeless. On a reconnaissance patrol, the cowardly Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) panics and kills one of his own men. He silences the only witness, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) by pulling rank — the enlisted man’s word will never be accepted over his. The attack fails, after many of Colonel Dax’s men are killed in a pointless frontal assault. Seeing that some soldiers never left the trenches, Mireau directs his own artillery to fire on them, but his orders are refused. To save face and teach a lesson, the petulant Mireau demands that executions be carried out. The number of men to be shot is narrowed to just three, to be chosen by the trench officers. One victim is selected by lot and another is singled out because he’s unpopular. Lt. Roget chooses the third to die: Corporal Paris, the witness to Roget’s cowardice.

 

Colonel Dax defends the three in a court-martial that’s merely a formality. General Mireau equates his personal pride with the honor of the army. General Broulard sees the entire issue in political terms, and assumes that Dax’s spirited defense is a maneuver for personal advancement. But Broulard also lays a trap for Mireau … as Dax has documented the General’s attempt to fire on his own troops.

Paths of Glory is yet another superb Kubrick film about the failure of human effort and institutions. That theme stays consistent from the thieves of The Killing to the spacemen betrayed by their own computer in 2001. On a meager budget, Kubrick constructs impressive, gritty battle scenes that hold up against the benchmark set by All Quiet on the Western Front. His photographic skills capture visions of trench warfare recorded in authentic photographs. The troops suffer and die in filthy conditions while the generals meet for lunch in regal chateaus. The ancient palaces are as much of a holdover from the decadent past as the antiquated military system itself.

 

Kubrick’s film experiments with film form but depends on strong, conventional dramatic scenes. There’s a big battle, but the real story conflict is Col. Dax’s opposition to monstrous, murderous army politics. Screenwriters Kubrick, Calder Willingham and pulp crime novelist Jim Thompson ugly ironies in the grossly corrupt military command structure. General Mireau reserves the right to kill his own men because they aren’t sufficiently willing to commit suicide. Loyal soldiers are used first as cannon fodder and then as scapegoats to be punished.

One of the men to be executed ‘for cowardice’ is offered a blindfold by the very man that has condemned him to cover up his own cowardice. Another (Joe Turkel) goes to his cowardice trial, wearing medals for bravery. He is so sick that he must be awakened for his own execution. The killing is staged as a formal ritual, to proclaim its legitimacy. General Mireau considers the spectacle his personal vindication: “My men did die well, didn’t they?”

Kubrick offers excellent opportunities for his supporting actors. The show is a career highlight for Wayne Morris (Plunder Road), Richard Anderson (Forbidden Planet) and the late Joe Turkel (Blade Runner); although his Cpl. Paris is a relatively small part, second-billed Ralph Meeker (The Naked Spur, Kiss Me Deadly) makes a shatteringly honest impression of a man facing death. Kubrick continues to involve collaborators from his personal life, without losing his judgment — Paths of Glory introduced him to actress Suzanne Christian, who would become his wife of 41 years.

 

Thanks to masterful direction that refrains from overstating emotions already present in the material Paths of Glory is a devastating experience. The generals discuss murdering their own men over a light meal, and Kubrick’s ‘cold’ observance of their political games displays their vain posturing for exactly what it is. We admire Cpl. Paris’ calm acceptance of his fate — the man has too much dignity to indulge in a pointless protest against the inevitable. The uncontrollable actor Timothy Carey receives special billing, but he wouldn’t take direction and had to be fired from the film. He ends up as one of its most memorable assets, crying and wailing as he’s paraded to the firing squad.

Kubrick also fulfills his mission to shape Paths of Glory into a vanity showcase for Kirk Douglas. The film has no romance, but we do get to see Dax shirtless as he washes up, looking good. Douglas is also in there sticking his chin out, heroically leading his troops on the doomed charge into no-man’s land.

 

Dax’s dramatic function is to provide an identification figure for the audience, as someone who can see through the political machinations of the high-ranking officers. Dax seems heroic because he Stands Right Up and tells off the bad guys in no uncertain terms, railing against injustice with all of his might. His outbursts are righteous and emotional yet also reasoned and eloquent. It’s the kind of performance opportunity that makes a film star see visions of award nominations. The Academy voters may have sensed that grandstanding quality. The show received no Oscar noms; the Best Actor winner for ’57 was Alec Guinness from the much bigger war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Kubrick’s depiction of mass murder and military depravity is so strong, that the audience needs Dax’s socially conscious preaching just to regain equilibrium. Dax gets to storm out carrying a moral victory. But the screenwriters don’t pretend that anything has been made better, and we do wonder how things will work out for the ‘uncooperative’ Dax. You’d think Broulard would find some elegant way to get him sent to Devil’s Island.

 

Stanley Kubrick fashioned Paths of Glory into a star showcase for Kirk Douglas without compromising the film’s artistic values. We aren’t at all surprised that the producer-star tapped him to direct his next super-production Spartacus. Kirk may have wanted a director he could control, but Stanley’s service for Kirk was a springboard to the top level of the industry.

If made by a lesser director Paths of Glory might very well have resembled a social pleading film by that other Stanley, Stanley Kramer. The movie can’t exactly be called politically daring, either: how risky could it be to protest the injustice of a war already a half-century in the past?  Since the story takes place in the French Army, the Pentagon wasn’t going to take offense. Neither did the Production Code have anything to complain about. The combat isn’t shown to gory excess and a soulful priest (Emile Meyer) is close at hand for the condemned soldiers.

One obvious downside: it goes without saying that the movie was banned in France for a very long time. Even minor references to French military history were routinely disallowed.

 

Of course, it takes little imagination to perceive that Paths of Glory is making a general statement about all armies in all wars, that its moral outrage is applicable to present-day militarism. Audiences have always rallied behind Kirk Douglas’s bombastic oratory, as Col. Dax provides a handy outlet for our built-up rage. Mireau and Broulard’s intolerable behavior cues cheers for Kirk’s tirade, even when the actor performs his signature nasal cracked-voice bit.

When Col. Dax leaves the generals’ chateau, the show proper is effectively finished. But Kubrick proceeds to a postscript that’s one of the most brilliant scenes in his filmography. Like a leftover bit from Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, we see a captured German girl (Suzanne Christian) goaded into singing for the troops. It looks like a prelude to possible sexual humiliation. The soldiers’ hoots and catcalls turn to tears as she sings a heartbreaking tune. With this one brief scene, Kubrick (1) changes the tone from outrage to contemplation, (2) returns the subject to the soldiers that do the fighting, (3) and shows that Dax will have to continue as part of the killing machine.

Most importantly for Kubrick, the radical, heartbreaking singalong scene (4) reclaims his authorship of the movie. Kirk Douglas’s contribution is limited to a pair of brief cutaways. He’s still the star, but the movie belongs to its director.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD disc of Paths of Glory once again gives us a full 4K remaster of an early masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick. The vibrant image reminds us that he took full responsibility for the B&W camerawork. The UHD image might equal the look of original theatrical prints — and this show was always a knockout on a big screen. We see into the blacks of the grim night scenes in the trenches. That grand ballroom employed as a casual generals’ dinette is more ornate than ever, oozing with elegance and luxury. The soundtrack also shows Kubrick in full control. He once again taps Gerald Fried for the music score. The main titles are a military dirge version of La Marseillaise.

Once again we admire Kubrick’s visual control, whether cruising through endless muddy trenches or regarding that 17th-century chateau with its 30-foot ceilings. Kubrick moves his camera judiciously, trucking or craning only when a specific visual effect is indicated. The West German artisans fashioned a trench battlefield set that’s a real hellscape — there seems nowhere to hide. We fully understand why the pathetic, craven Lt. Roget betrays his own comrades — he’ll do anything to stay out of no-man’s land.

There is a wealth of interesting lore behind the making of Paths of Glory to be read in books, innumerable articles and information gleaned from museum brochures. The previous Criterion Blu-ray can’t be bettered for extras, with comprehensive critical analysis and fascinating testimony from key Kubrick collaborators.

Kino relies on its superior transfer to make the sale, and gives the show a single extra, a solid commentary by Tim Lucas. We’re given a firm rundown on all the players, and the expected personal critical analysis, that makes good use of a close reading of the original novel. As described by Lucas, the changes in the adaptation illuminate Kubrick & Co.’s expert judgment.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Paths of Glory
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD in Keep case
Reviewed:
August 14, 2022
(6779path)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.