Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
After his first “major” motion picture “The Killing” was a critical success but a box office failure, Stanley Kubrick needed a little inspiration to get the public on his side for his next effort. That came in the form of a 1934 book he had read as a child, called “Paths of Glory,” about a group of French soldiers who had been court-martialed for cowardice as an example to their fellow soldiers. It was 1916, in the thick of the Great War, and the trench warfare between the French and German forces had reached a standstill. That’s when a group of French soldiers were ignorantly ordered to overtake a heavily-guarded German base hundreds of yards away—it amounted to a suicide mission. After progressing only part of the way, the surviving soldiers turned around and came back. For that, they were put on trial in a kangaroo court of oblivious higher-ups, but defended by their corporal, Dax (played in the film adaptation by Kirk Douglas), who believed they had no other choice. The book’s author had struggled to find anyone willing to take the story and put it on the big screen, until Kubrick agreed to adapt it. With “Paths of Glory,” which he finally got released in 1957, he brought the story to life while simultaneously jumpstarting his own brilliant career.
“Paths of Glory” is a persuasive anti-war film, a bold choice in an age before Vietnam. France banned the film from its country for nearly twenty years; Spain waited nearly thirty. The only reason United Artists agreed to release the film in the first place is because Kubrick got Douglas (always a boldly independent actor) to play the lead role. Kirk Douglas was in his mid-40s at the time, like his son Michael Douglas would be three decades later when he starred in “Fatal Attraction” and “Wall Street.” The mid-40s must be the Douglas boys’ prime—manly and mature, but still nimble and clever and feisty as hell. Not that either of them lost that bit of their personality as they aged.
Though mostly a movie of hushed agreements and tense courtroom dramatics, “Paths of Glory” does have one or two incredibly chaotic and terrifying scenes of warfare that (for the time, especially) feel very authentic. The German cinematographer Georg Krause (best known for his work in this film, at least on this side of the Atlantic) got right in the thick of it. His tracking shots through the trenches (not that there’s much else to do in trenches) felt truly contemporary.
In 2010, the Criterion Collection released a digitally remastered version of “Paths of Glory” after manually removing scratches and imperfections in the original negatives. If you watch this movie, this is the only way to watch it. A 61-year-old movie has no business looking (or sounding) as crisp and clear as the re-release of “Paths of Glory” does. I can say a lot about the story, the cinematography, or Kirk Douglas, but in order to truly appreciate those things, it helps to see it the way Stanley Kubrick intended it to be seen.