Paul (George Macready) and George Adolphe Menjou) are two pals sat at a table in an opulent room, surrounded by grand paintings and luscious furnishings. The chat seems affable enough. Only, these guys are actually generals in the French army. The year is 1916 and the topic of their conversation is overthrowing the German invasion of their country.
Senior officer George wants his old friend Paul to organise a battalion of his men to take possession of a German ant hill. It's basically a suicide mission being called for at short notice, with hugely unlikely odds of being success. Paul is initially reticent to take on the task but a gentle hint of possible promotion makes him reconsider.
And so, Paul notifies a unit overseen by colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) that they will be leaving the trenches and attacking the ant hill in mere hours. Dax is unhappy with Paul's casual expectancy of a high mortality rate. And yet, he too is persuaded to take on the mission when his valour is subtly challenged.
The attack is predictably disastrous. Cowardly drunken lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) fluffs a scouting exercise, accidentally killing one of his own men and fleeing back to camp, leaving old school pal Paris (Ralph Meeker) to find his own way back. And that's just for starters: when it's time for the men to go over the wall en masse, the first lot are hit by a barrage of bombs and gunfire. They don't stand a chance. Many die, and the survivors understandably flee back to the safety of their trench - where the second lot have frozen with fear.
Paul is so furious to learn of his unit's failure that he orders an artillery team to open fire on his own men. Fortunately the artillery leader refuses to follow these orders unless he can have them in writing.
The upshot of all of this calamity is that Paul wants blood. He perceives the failed mission as cowardice on the platoon's part, and deems such an offence as being punishable by death. Meeting with Dax and George, Paul suggests that he takes 100 men and have them shot under 'court martial' procedures - as an example to the others. George agrees in principal, reasoning that "there are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die".
Dax, of course, was in the thick of the action and knows what horrors his men were facing. He appeals to his senior officers' better nature and the outcome is that three men will be chosen by their respective platoon captains to face a court hearing. Should they be found guilty of cowardice, these examples will be killed by firing squad as their fellow soldier observe.
Little surprise that Roget chooses Paris - the only witness to his own act of spinelessness and murder - to face execution. The other two are attitude-heavy Arnaud (Joe Turkel) and social misfit Ferol (Timothy Carey). Formerly a lawyer, Dax requests that he be allowed to act as defence to this motley trio at their hearing.
It's unfair to give any more of the plot away. Suffice it to say, a courtroom drama ensues, followed by a kick-to-the-nuts final act which truly rams home the point director Stanley Kubrick has been making from the opening scenes onwards: war is a hypocritical, ironic, inhuman play for power with scant regard for the lives it shatters along the way.
It all starts off in rather dated fashion (this was first released in 1957, after all), with opening narration which breathlessly sets the scene in a manner akin to Harry Enfield's Mr Chormondley-Warner character. Some of the acting techniques will require an adjustment of expectations from those accustomed to the more naturalistic performances of modern cinema: here, there's a tendency for characters to turn their back on each other, facing the camera instead to deliver key lines in tense soap-opera style. And, naturally, Douglas gets to bare his torso in one of many famous, gratuitous topless scenes.
But I've dispensed those little observations first, simply to get them out of the way. Because PATHS OF GLORY is truly brilliant cinema and, despite, the above tell-tale signs of it being made in a different era, it still feels amazingly fresh. Amazing, because it's a 1957 film based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb. And yet its themes, challenging the nature and concept of war, its unholy politics and notions of hierarchy, and the ultimate futility of it all, are ever prescient.
What's more, in Kubrick's hands, the delivery remains very modern-feeling. We get to know these characters as they're tossed into emotionally turbulent scenarios; some of the violence is surprisingly graphic for its time (not gory, but graphic nonetheless); the tone is unsparing. The anti-war message cannot be mistaken, and PATHS OF GLORY spares few punches in hammering it across.
Douglas exhibits his usual charisma in the atypically unglamorous lead role. He's well supported by the likes Macready, Menjou and Morris: their characters are fleshed out enough to encourage the viewer to ponder over their arguments and understand their positions, even if we don't agree with their ideals. Carey is a likeable oaf - it's heart-breaking when he finally breaks down. And look out for Kubrick's future wife Susanne Christian in a later scene of stunning poignancy.
A bravely unsentimental film, filled with acerbic dialogue, passionate performances and political rhetoric. It's also beautifully shot and snappily paced. The early scenes of battle action are highly effective (and surely had some influence on the likes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). All in all, PATHS OF GLORY is a masterful piece of cinema.
PATHS OF GLORY comes to UK blu-ray, thanks to the fine folk at Eureka! It forms part of their revered "Masters of Cinema" collection.
The film is presented uncut and in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer has been struck from an original negative and is housed as an MPEG4-AVC file. Restoration has clearly taken place, resulting in a vibrant, clean and crisp presentation which is easily the best the film has looked on home video. Blacks are deep and noise-free, imagery is pin-sharp, fine natural grain reassures us of a lack of DNR usage. For a film almost 60 years old, this is a truly great presentation.
English mono audio sounds clean and clear too, with easily readable and well-written optional English subtitles on hand for the hard-of-hearing.
A fine array of extra materials begin with an audio commentary from film historian Adrian Martin. He describes the movie as being about "the chain of power in war", is honest enough to pinpoint the moments of acting that date the film, and reveals how Douglas was instrumental in getting the film made. Best of all are his comparisons between film and book.
A "music and sound effects track" isolates these facets for a curious, dialogue-free variant of the film. It's worth a look.
Sat in front of his impressive bookcase at home, film scholar Peter Kramer speaks for 14 minutes about how PATHS OF GLORY fits in to Kubrick's career.
Comedian and filmmaker Richard Ayoade is also on hand with his rather academic views on the film, during a 23-minute interview conducted in a cinema. He has fun drawing pointing out both the differences and similarities in the works of Kubrick and fellow director Robert Altman, while musing over how the film tries to see things from each character's point of view.
Scholar and author Richard Combs has 10 minutes in which to repeat a lot of the info proffered in the above extras, while proving himself to be a little more watchable than the nice-but-slightly-dull Kramer and Ayoade. He pulls this off with ease.
The film's original 3-minute trailer is a joy. Pillar-boxed and a tad scratchy, it's got great pace - like the main feature - and is typically sensationalistic, as previews always were back then.
This release also comes with an excellent 36-page collectors' booklet. It contains a new essay from Glen Kenny which looks at the film in respect of Kubrick's career and its importance as such; an archive article entitled "The Hollywood War of Independence" from a 1959 issue of Film Quarterly (which, as with the Kenny piece, features some great quotes from the director regarding the film's making); notes on how to best view the film on your HD equipment; disc credits.
PATHS OF GLORY is a reminder of how Kubrick was a master of cinematic drama. It holds up tremendously well after all these decades, and looks fantastic on Eureka!'s blu-ray. With solid contextual extras to boot, this release is easy for me to recommend.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka Entertainment Ltd|
|see main review|