Paths of Glory seems to have been forgotten in favour of Kubrick’s later films which have an almost surgical perfection to every image. Those later films are undeniable great but I have a slight preference for the more restrained slim-lined early films which culminated in Dr. Strangelove. Masters of Cinema’s latest release should hopefully shred some light on what is undeniably Kubrick’s most human film and also possibly his best, although it’s nearly impossible to pick just one.
Almost all of Kubrick’s early films with Lolita and Spartacus being the odd films out due to the length and all the others being at 95 minutes at the most if not shorter. Spartacus is also unfairly dismissed by Kubrick fanboys because it was a director for hire job but he later admitted he was proud of the film. Paths of Glory was the film which really cemented Kubrick as a director to watch for many, The Killing have been more inventive with its storytelling but it wasn’t as widely seen at the time.
Paths of Glory is one of a dozen or so of truly great WW1 films. unlike WW2 or later the Vietnam war; films depicting WW1 after the ’30s have rarely been successful. Paths of Glory depicts Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who has to lead his group of soldiers to take the enemy anthill. However many don’t advance because it’s simply impossible due to the attacking forces and 3 of soldiers are punished with a court-martial. Dax defends the soldiers in an absurdist court material where the soldiers are facing death by firing squad.
The tracking shots through the trenches in Paths of Glory would go down in cinema lore and have been influenced many a tracking shot including Gilliam’s tracking shots in Brazil. As noted in the disc’s supplementary material the entire aesthetic for the most part is much more in tune with Film Noir where Kubrick got his start than the war films of the time. Lots of stark photography, shadows, extreme close-ups, tracking shots are used throughout. The cast of Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey amongst other had made their names in numerous Film Noirs.
The film noir connection expands to the fact Kubrick hired the pulp novelist Jim Thompson to co-write the script. Kubrick enlisted Thompson to write The Killing which isn’t based on his of novels, it’s based on a Lionel White novel. Thompson’s stature as a writer has grown considerably unlike White who remains a cult figure even for fans of hardboiled fiction. Thompson’s work is the most depraved of the pulp writers of the ’50s, the worlds he created were full of characters who had absolutely no moral centre and lived on the brink of society. The stories he told were full of nihilism and absurdity and put him much more in tune with the burgeoning beat scene of the time than many of his contemporaries.
Paths of Glory contains some of Thompson’s absurdity especially through the court material sequences. It has a sense of almost Kafkaesque bureaucracy to it because no matter how much Dex tries to get his soldiers off with evidence the result will be the same. It remains to this day one of the most damning films about the mechanisms of war but also the absurdity that comes with that. Kubrick would later explore those themes in a more light-hearted ways with Dr. Strangelove and his Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick ends Paths of Glory much like The Killing with the soldiers off to war again, it’s defeatist to its core and like that film’s last line “Eh, what’s the difference?”.
Eureka has given new life to a film which is sadly often forgotten by some critics when it comes to Kubrick’s oeuvre. The film’s anti-war message is as powerful as it was in 1958 and the performances across the board are career highlights. Douglas gives perhaps his best but like Kubrick it’s nearly impossible to pick just one. The cinematography by Georg Krause should have sparked a extraordinary career but didn’t do much more of note sadly, he never worked with Kubrick again.
The disc includes the same transfer as the Criterion Blu-ray and is a sharp as you would expect. First up is a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin who also did the commentary for Frankenheimer’s Seconds for Masters of Cinema. The disc is rounded off with insightful interviews with Richard Ayoade and the film scholars Peter Kramer and Richard Combs. The package is rounded off with the trailer and a booklet featuring words by Kubrick and new writings on the film.