The closing stages of the First World War, and the trenches along the Western Front are bearing the brunt of the battle, as they have been for some time, the conflict having reached an impasse. It is clear drastic action must be taken to gain the upper hand, and with that in mind the French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) has visited his friend and compatriot General Mireau (George Macready) with a view to persuading his troops to go over the top and take a strategically significant region known as the Ant Hill. Although both are well aware this will result in a loss of life for their men that may be very high indeed, Mireau decides that the bravery of the action will win the day. Bravery - or stupidity?
The director of Paths of Glory was Stanley Kubrick, who had yet to make a name for himself, or at least the name he would become, but for many this was his first masterpiece, a brutal anti-war tale that was not savage because of its violent imagery, more because of the frankness of its portrayal as men as cannon fodder in the First World War. Accompanying that was the theme that cowardice in these circumstances was not so much self-preservation when there was really no sensible course of action to take that would see you gunned down or blown up, and not just you but a great swathe of your fellow soldiers, when the more reasonable option would appear to be to keep the loss of life at the enemy's hands to a minimum.
The supposedly unavoidable notion that some examples had to be made in order to win the wars so nobody would entertain the question, "Are you serious? You want me to get killed for you?" was not one which bothered Kubrick and his writers (including pulp thriller legend Jim Thompson), as they were more set on showing up the superior officers who saw to it that their men were effectively slaughtered for a false idea of glory. Epitomising that was Macready, who had made a career of playing bad guys yet here was offered the role of his career; he could be accused of blustering his way through his performances, yet here he proved there was an excellent actor underneath that, his General Mireau a very understandable, and therefore more chilling, monster.
It is Mireau who orders the taking of the Ant Hill, and when it predictably fails and the surviving troops are beating a retreat since there's no other course of action available, he further orders the artillery to shell them as a punishment. That sense of arbitrary punishment for actions that deserved far more compassion was shot through the drama of Paths of Glory, a cry for humanism in an inhuman set of circumstances, and when it doesn't arrive the feelings of outrage and harrowing injustice are palpable: precisely what Kubrick wished to elicit in his audience. This means the film was his first truly controversial work in a professional life littered with them as it met with criticism and even bans from various European countries, including France of course, thanks to its withering look at the deficiencies of the war machine, everyone well aware that executions for cowardice were a dreadful feature of this event.
Which brought us to the actor who summed up what was more than indignant grumbling, it was, for Kubrick, a genuinely emotional response. He was the man who actually kept the project in motion, star Kirk Douglas, who loved the script and was determined to make it a movie with himself in the lead. He got his wish, and you could well understand why it appealed so, as his performance was among the finest ever seen in this director's oeuvre, a tightly controlled delivery of good sense in a world that has gone mad. Douglas's Colonel Dax is not afraid to tackle the war as is his duty, but he is not about to accept Mireau and Broulard's resolution of the failed assault, which is to take three men from each platoon at random and have them executed for cowardice. Another element arose here, that every dead man in the war was a statistic for the history books, yet they were actual, living, breathing people as well, and deserved to exist as much as the generals sending them to their deaths. The final scene was ironic as it was moving, as the French soldiers recognise a common humanity between themselves and their supposed enemies, but Douglas putting across the sheer anger that this course of events had to take place was impossible to dismiss. Music by Gerald Fried.
[Eureka's Blu-ray features a restored print that looks just dandy, and as extra features an audio commentary, three video essays, the trailer, a booklet (with rare Kubrick interview), a music and effects track, and subtitles too.]
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.