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The trenches of the First World War were merciless places. Men were mowed down, like so much wheat in an increasingly industrialised battle to the death. In the west many of the leaders were either hopelessly vaingloriously incompetent, or were willing to discard their own men on their path to greater glory...
Paths of Glory (B&W. 1957. 1 hr, 28 min) is a anti-war film directed by Stanley Kubrick. The film is based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb.
The story tells of a single incident in WWI where a company is asked to assault an impossible position. In the midst of the horror and hopelessness, some of the soldiers refuse to continue with the suicidal attack.
The main protagonist is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who is forced to lead his men on a futile attempt to take an enemy position called the Anthill. The assault is ordered by General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) against the advice of his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready). Mireau is won over when there is mention of a promotion, Mireau’s own path to greater glory is a path strewn with the deaths of his own men.
Dax is ordered to work out a plan of attack even though he knows that such an attack would be futile. On the day, Dax’s men never reach the German lines and one company of men refuses to even get out of their trenches. Enraged with their behaviour Mireau orders the artillery to open fire on their own men, an order they refuse.
To deflect from his own incompetence, Mireau orders that one hundred of the survivors be tried for cowardice. This number is reduced to three. Unbeknownst to Mireau, Dax is an able lawyer and advocate and so defends his men, though the lack of any written record or oversight means that the trial is a farce.
After the trial is concluded, and the sentence carried out, Dax is summoned to Broulard’s office where Mireau is told that he will be charged with the order to shell his own men and his post is offered to Dax in the misunderstanding that he had defended his men and exposed Mireau just to get a promotion.
Following the film's opening narration, Kubrick reverts to a documentary style, removed from Italian neo realism, but certainly influenced by that short live filmic style. His use of picture combined with the audioscape of sound effects and music, sees the first germinations of Kubrick's ability to tell a convincing story with the minimal of dialog, which would come to fruition in 2001 (1968).
The story is multi-layered and more complex than a piece of this size could encompass. The film highlights not only the utter futility of war but also the moral vacuum in which it is often conducted.
The film has been beautifully restored and is presented with an aspect ratio of 1,66:1, there are audio track for English, German and Italian. The PR sheet got me fair excited when it listed one of the audio languages as Latin, but no it’s just Italian. There are English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
The Blu-ray disc comes with a number of excellent extras including a new video interview with Kubrick scholar Peter Kramer, a new video interview with filmmaker Richard Ayoade. There is a new audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin and the original theatrical trailer. You can listen to the isolated music and effects audio track, something which I’ve seen on a number of discs but have never been convinced of its value. Lastly you get a rather nice booklet.
This may be one of Kubrick’s earlier films, but it is no less powerful nor less condemnatory of the folly of war than his later film, Dr Strangelove (1964). Likewise Kirk Douglas puts in a virtuoso performance as the morally centred Dax, a perfect combination of director and actor.
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