132 of 147 people found the following review helpful
In 1916 France Commander Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) wants General Mireau (George Macready) to have his battered division take the "Ant Hill", an impregnable German fortress, promising Mireau a promotion and another story if he succeeds. Mireau orders Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead the charge, which is a complete failure. When soldiers are pinned down by German artillery and machine gun fire Mireau orders his own artillery to fire on their own trenches, screaming, "If those sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll take French ones!"
"Paths of Glory" has a deserved reputation as a great anti-war film but I think that director Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's 1935 semi-fictional novel is a rather specific indictment of both a particular military and a particular war. The suicidal attack in the first act of the film was loosely based upon the battle for Fort Douamont during the Battle of Verdun, where over 300,000 French soldiers lost their lives. The assault, doomed to fail before it began, is ordered by French generals more concerned with prestige and promotions than the lives of their troops or the actual prospects for success. In the wake of the disaster three men are selected to be tried and then executed for cowardice. They are defended in court by their commander, Colonel Dax, the lone voice of reason speaking out against the insanity of what has happened.
This film was banned for almost twenty years in France and it is an indictment of the French military on a par with those films that have touched on the infamous Dreyfus case. I have trouble extending this indictment beyond these French generals, not only because in cinematic history there is this sense of this being standard practice for the French military but also because hypocritically sending troops to such senseless death is rare in American military history. John Bell Hood sending Confederate troops in a series of useless charges to teach them a lesson at the Battle of Franklin comes to mind, but I remember most American generals as taking blame and responsibility for such slaughters (e.g., Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee after Pickett's Charge, Ulysses S. Grant with regard to the final assault at Cold Harbor).
But there is also a sense in which we identify this sort of waste of young soldiers with World War I. In cinematic terms the obvious comparison is to "Gallipoli," where British troops are having tea on the beaches while Australian troops are gunned down in a needless charge ordered by stubborn British generals (another category of military leaders easy treat with disdain given how they are portrayed in the movies). The Civil War has provided amble evidence that troops charging entrenched or fortified positions was horribly futile and yet fifty years later European armies were still sending thousands of men against machine guns (the iconic weapon of the first World War). As the opening narration explains, "Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards - and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands."
The title of the book/film comes from a line in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," where the poet writes, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." This might be an anti-war film but it still shows the heroism of the troops as Kubrick uses a tracking shot to follow the Dax and his soldiers across No Man's Land against the German fort. After all, these men are fighting an army that has invaded their country, so there is a sense in which the title is inappropriate simply because these men are not involved in a quest for glory.
The film was shot in Germany and cinematographer Georg Krause provides one of the sharpest black & white films you have ever seen. The clarity is almost daunting and it is impossible not to think that it is not but another part of Kubrick's grand design. As for the performance by Douglas I would agree with the general consensus that this is his finest performance, even over what he would provide for Kubrick three years later in "Spartacus."
In the end Kubrick makes a final argument for the universality of human experience when a German singer (Susanne Christian, who was Christiane Kubrick wife of the director) is forced to sing a song for the French troops whose jeers turn to tears. There are, relatively speaking compared to other wars, relatively few films about the First World War. But it is rather impressive when you start listing the ones that immediately come to mind ("Wings," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Sgt. York," "Gallipoli") how good they tend to be and how many of them are, at their essence, anti-war films. For that, I think the credit for linking that particular war with the idea of the futility of war clearly belongs to Erich Maria Remarque, author of "All Quiet on the Western Front."
97 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2005
When you are the one who gets to decide who lives and who dies, what are the criteria that the rest of us should buy into before giving our consent? If a general, or a CEO for that matter, asks the impossible, how far must men go in following their orders before disobedience is permissible? When is it ok for a cog in the machine to stop being a machine and start being a human being? This film suggests that the Ant Hill could only have been taken by live soldiers, and if all the soldiers were being slaughtered in the attempt to cross no mans land, the few survivors should naturally turn back, and live to fight another day. Under these circumstances, taking the Hill would have been impossible.
Ah, but that was an embarrasment for the general who ordered the attack. His judgement could not have been wrong, so, therefore, the men must be cowards. The role of Reason, the nature of absurdity, courage, and cowardice are all examined in this simple story, and the implication is clear that it is better to die bravely in front of a firing squad than to grow comfortable with mendacity and cower before the truth. The real cowards in the story were those who ordered these men to their deaths on the battlefield, because they were afraid to say no and risk their reputations for daring, and also those who ordered their deaths in front of a firing squad, and also those who concealed the truth out of fear of the consequences. Again, it is better to die bravely than live in cowardice. And the bravest of them all was the colonel played by Kirk Douglas, who fought for reason, justice, truth, and against the enemy on every side, even when the enemy was his superior officer. Yes, the enemy can be found in your own ranks, even among your commanding officers.
In the end they are all ordered back to the front. However, the next to the last scene in the cafe, is one of the most astonishing moments in cinematic history.
The soldiers, young and old, are making sport of a pretty young German girl who is being put forward by the proprietor for their entertainment. She has no talent, save for a little 'natural talent' he says, gesturing along the length of her body. "She cannot dance, she cannot tell jokes, but she has a golden throat, she sings like a bird", he tells them. They are laughing and taunting her, and she is nervous and intimidated, and begins to sing, haltingly, but plaintively, and one by one, the men grow silent. The camera moves from face to face, young, old, battle weary, her voice reminds them of all that is delicate and sweet, all that is not brutal and meaningless and horrible. And they all can remember a time, long ago, when they were not fighting and killing and struggling to keep alive, and slowly, one by one, they begin wiping away the tears, then picking up her melody and gradually joining in. Kirk Douglas peers in through the window when the sargeant comes up with their orders to return to the front. "Give them a few more minutes," he says, and turns heel. It is a devastating moment. This is a film with a clear and powerful message. But it is not an anti-war movie. It is anti-mendacity, anti-authoritarian, and anti-injustice. The war setting is just a timless trope to carry the weight of these more significant issues.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
It has been almost 50 years since this anti-war film appeared, one which was banned in France until 1970. It is based on Humphrey Cobb's novel. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas who also produced it, the film examines a fictional (but nonetheless wholly believable) situation during World War One when French troops are ordered to achieve an impossible military objective: Climb and secure the "Ant Hill," a heavily-fortified German position. Of course the troops are decimated. Whom to blame? General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) who gave the order? The troops' general, General Mireau (George MacReady), whose career ambitions overcame his doubts about the order? The officer (Colonel Dax) who led the attack? General Broulard gives a second order: Select three of the survivors, charge them with cowardice, give them a perfunctory military trial, and then execute them. Their commanding officer is Colonel Dax (Douglas) who had been an attorney in civilian life. He is ordered to be the defense counsel. After the inevitable verdict, the three representatives are executed by a firing squad.
Kubrick presents all this on film as if it were a documentary of actual events. Appropriately, he filmed it in black-and-white, in part to dramatize the obvious juxtapositions of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, etc. The battlefield carnage is extensive but not gratuitous. For me, the insensitivity, indeed inhumanity of the two generals -- far removed from combat in luxurious comfort -- is far more upsetting than the assault on the "Ant Hill." The men who followed orders and lost their lives or their limbs may have died in vain but at least died with honor, if not glory. Kubrick leaves absolutely no doubt about the generals who sent them into battle. Colonel Dax understands the need for military discipline. Orders must be followed. He eventually realizes that no matter how logical and eloquent his defense, the three men are doomed as were so many of their comrades were while climbing the "Ant Hill." Dax also realizes Broulard and Mireau will never be held accountable for the order nor for denying any responsibility for its tragic consequences. Dante reserved the worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. Kubrick ensures that Menju and MacReady portray Broulard and Mireau not as neutral accomplices but as agents of evil: a more dangerous adversary than the one their troops face in battle.
With regard to Dax, he did everything he could to save the three men. He leaves absolutely no doubt in the minds of Generals Broulard and Mireau what he thinks of them, both as officers and as human beings. However, they are his military superiors and the war continues after the executions. I mention all this by way of suggesting a context for my opinion that the final scene in the cafe has a very important purpose: to communicate Kubrick's reassurance to those who see his film that even amidst war's death and mutilation, the very best of human instincts somehow prevail. They cannot be defeated by the "Ant Hill," nor by Broulard and Mireau and their obscene abuse of military justice. In my opinion, that is what Dax realizes in the cafe as he and other soldiers listen to a terrified girl sing. And that is the final "message" which Kubrick seems determined to leave with his audience.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 1999
Paths of Glory is a complicated film experience, that on first viewing appears to be an anti-war diatribe, but repeated viewings make it far more complex. The film's plot revolves around the brutality of trench warfare and the total disconnection between the suffering of the foot soldier and the French Army's High Command. The generals, fearing mutiny among their exhausted soldiers, order executions after the failure to take a position. The three martyrs are represented by their commanding officer, who also happens to be a lawyer (Kirk Douglas), but since they are sacrificial lambs, chosen by lot, their fate is preordained. It is the dance of death that Kubrick focuses on, in the trenches, in the elegant chateau that houses the senile General Command, and the courtroom where the farce is played out. This is not the first film focusing on the total stupidity of trench warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front(by Lewis Milestone) and The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks) are equally effective in portraying the madness of WWI. Paths of Glory is equally fascinating for revealing the concerns that Kubrick would focus on throughout the rest of his career. These concerns go way beyond plot and story. Kubrick worked with first rate writers on this film (Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham), but the vision is his own. The endless brutal moving camera as it snakes through the trenches, pulling the characters through the crazed landscape, the lateral tracking shots during the attack sequences, the brilliantly composed close ups of men under unending duress and pressure all help to create a universe that is beyond the control of man. Kubrick's vision is one of the strongest visual creations in modern cinema and should not be forgotten when we get caught up in the compelling storyline. His connection with Kirk Douglas was so successful that when the filming of Spartacus ran into directorial roadblocks, the star was able to convince the producers to bring in the unknown Kubrick to take on the Hollywood mega epic. The producers of Spartacus had never heard of Paths of Glory and it is only through video tape that we can get to see a crucial work from Kubrick's early career. It's also a great companion piece to Full Metal Jacket, another Kubrick war film released thirty years later and a film that continues to display the director's concern with creating a visual world of total entrapment that is outside the comprehension of the ordinary man.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2001
If Stanley Kubrick had not directed anything else, he'd still be lionized for this unrelenting look at the irony of war. Praise must also be bestowed on Kirk Douglas who had a big hand in getting this picture made. The trench scenes are realistic, the HQ drama is devastating and the 3 doomed soldiers are symbolic of the lost generation of WWI, picked at random and executed for cowardice to make up for lost honor and stupidity. The Humphrey Cobb novel sadly is out-of-print and how can this be? It is a classic on the level with Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet On The Western Front and Catch-22. I urge anyone who is interested in an intelligent war film (no oxymoron) to buy this for repeated viewings and to search out the book for a fuller appreciation of the artistic vision of Kubrick's masterpiece. The final scene where the German girl sings for the war-weary soldiers chokes me up everytime I see it. No other war film holds a candle to this one.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2002
If it were made today, "Paths of Glory" would be a two-and-a-half hour long epic, loaded with self-importance and chest thumping. It would contain scene after scene of Oscar-baiting speeches performed by American actors with phony French accents, a soaring Hans Zimmer (or, most likely, John Williams) score meant to tug at the heartstrings, and more splattered blood than vampire's day at the Red Cross. But it wasn't made today. It was made in 1957. And not by some Hollywood hack, looking forward to awards season. But by Stanley Kubrick, a young director ready to burst through the doors of cinema history. "Paths of Glory" announces his presence, and oh what a wonderful noise it does make.
The film is set in France, 1916. World War I is in full swing, and the French front is stabilized. Trench warfare is prevalent, and though battle lines changed very little, the casualties used to make those changes are astronomical. General Mireau, a seemingly pragmatic man at the film's onset, is given an important task by General Broulard: take 'The Anthill", a highly important strategic position, currently in the hands of the Germans. Mireau knows it can't be done, for his troops' numbers are already depleted, but the promise of an extra star on his chest sways him. It is this moment that typifies the themes of the film: the glory of one is put ahead of the safety of many.
This opening scene between Mireau and Broulard establishes Kubrick's camera work from the get-go. It moves fluidly around the room, following the two men in conversation while capturing the posh luxury they live in. The camera appears to be doing figure eights. This highly stylized movement is maintained throughout the rest of the film. Most notable in this regard are the trench scenes. A series of long tracking shots, single takes all, establish the size and terror to be found in the trenches. It helps contrast the conditions in the trenches with the ornateness of the general's quarters, allowing the audience to almost understand why Mireau would do anything to maintain his position.
Kubrick's camera is on fire here, giving a stylized but relevant look to the film's court martial scene. It circles endlessly around the judges, the prosecution, the defense, and the accused, unifying them all in the grand room bathed in soft sunlight (the whole film is a textbook example of how light -- and shadow -- should be used to set the mood of a scene).
Kirk Douglas, whose star-wattage helped Kubrick and Co. get the film made, is an imposing presence. Besides the fact that his pompadour never looks ruffled, even during the battle scenes, Douglas' Colonel Dax has credibility and power to spare. Once the "foremost criminal lawyer in all of France", Dax leads the platoon charged with the impossible mission. Although he sees the folly in it, he's enough of an army man to not go against orders. But he does make his views known. A liberal pragmatist, Dax is sharp of tongue and doesn't suffer fools gladly, enough so that when Mireau gives the order, Dax can't help quoting Samuel Johnson under his breath: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Douglas plays all sides of the man with skill and grace. He's at his best during the court marshal scene, where his anger nearly overtakes him, and his passion is palpable.
The supporting cast is, for the most part, fairly good, led by the three actors who played the condemned men. Timothy Carey previously worked with Kubrick in "The Killing". Carey is a weird on-screen presence, not much of an actor, but he's perfect for the nervous "social undesirable" that is Private Ferol. Joe Turkel, who would later play the bartender in "The Shining", looks tiny and unintimidating. But his small role as Private Arnaud calls for him to show a cool demeanor and then wield terrible anger. Turkel does well on both counts. Ralph Meeker is probably the soul of the film, as the doomed Corporal Paris. A man of principle and character, Paris is caught in a tough situation when a commanding officer, a former schoolmate who he doesn't respect in the slightest, bribes him into compliance with a cover-up scandal. Paris is the kind of soldier every army would die for, if said army wasn't awash in self-serving egotism. Meeker plays this dignified man perfectly.
There are some dubious performances here, most notably by George Macready and Wayne Morris. Macready, as Colonel Mireau, is little more than a cardboard villain. A crowded theatre would boo and hiss every time he comes on screen, his villainy is so one-sided. Macready is probably to blame, playing every scene with over-the-top hamminess. Morris, a real life war hero, is cast against type as the drunken buffoon, Lieutenant Roget. Although his amateurness works well in some scenes, it undermines the character in others. How could a man this foolhardy ever rise to such a position? We never see Roget as anything less than incompetent, and it hurts his credibility. Still, these minor quibbles don't tarnish the fine work of the entire cast.
"Paths of Glory" can be a frustrating film to watch, especially for those aghast at inequities caused by hubris and the hunt for glory. The court marshal scene, in which Douglas' Dax is set back at every turn, had me nearly screaming at my TV, as it became apparent that the officers were fully prepared to be selfish, and ruin the lives of a few innocent men. "There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die," says General Broulard at one point, with a beatific smile on his face. He thinks that his addressee, a subordinate, will accept his words as stated. Thankfully Colonel Dax, and Kubrick's remarkably compact film (running a taut 84 minutes), doesn't.
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2010
Stanley Kubrick's work is distinguished in many ways, but he rarely gets enough credit for the fact that he made *two* of the best anti-war films ever made. While most people are familiar with Full Metal Jacket, it is criminal that Paths Of Glory is not better known. It is probably the closest thing to a genuinely flawless film that Kubrick ever made. Everything from production design to camera motion to dialogue to actor performance is spot on in this picture. And that's leaving aside the adamantine philosophical message presented here, one that Kubrick often returned to in his movies: The Absurdity of Humanity's Brutality On Itself. Although most of his films address this theme, in Paths Of Glory we see it as the central motif, and it is played beautifully and tragically. One can appreciate the folly of war generally, and the utter stupidity of The Great War specifically, from this film as well as any history text or documentary.
Here Kubrick made his first extensive use of what was to become his signature camera motion: the corridor tracking shot. We see General Mireau and Colonel Dax survey their men in the trenches via this device early in the film, and later watch the condemned men trudge toward their execution through a corridor of fellow fusiliers--clearly a device meant to pose the question, "Where is the real danger? From the machineries of war, or from ourselves?" Kubrick also portrays the action here as though it is in the form of a chess game, as he does in a number of other films (see The Killing). Chessboards of sorts abound here (the floor of the inquest room and other places in the palace come to mind), and the characters are shown moving in chess-like fashion as befits their rank. Watching this film from a technical standpoint, one can truly understand why he earned the nickname "The Master." He was.
Though most of Stanley Kubrick's work has received several releases and upgrades on modern formats, his earlier pictures (and Barry Lyndon, still, if memory serves) have not received their due. It is heartening to see that Criterion has secured the rights to release this wonderfully deserving film in a new transfer; having seen what they've done with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, I am excited to see the results of this, one of my top 3 Kubrick films. The currently available DVD is satisfactory from an image quality standpoint, but I have no doubt the upcoming Criterion release will represent a quantum leap of an upgrade. The extra features alone warrant another purchase.
If you're a Kubrick fan, buy this.
Never seen a Kubrick film before? BUY THIS.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2006
Probably Stanley Kubrick's most underrated film. Kirk Douglas's performance is extraordinary as the officer Dax who honorably defends three soldiers put to death because they refused to follow orders in attempting a suicide mission. If there is an antiwar film that has a powerful message, this has to be near the top of the list.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Politics may lead to war but when war becomes little more than political ploy to protect those in charge the average soldier ends up as the victim sacrificed to ego. Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece "Paths of Glory" focuses on a colonel (Kirk Douglas) who defends his men on the charges of cowardice when they fail at carrying out a mission that his superiors knew to be impossible. Douglas gives one of his finest performances in Kubrick's film and the top notch supporting cast includes Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Anderson, and George Macready.
Kubrick's film is a study in the hypocrisy and gap that exists between waging war and the politics of war, it's impact on our humanity and the often absurd lengths that those in charge will go to as a means of keeping the their world neat and tidy. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb and written for the screen by Calder Willingham (the earliest drafts), Kubirck and Jim Thompson (who rewrote the script adding despite Willingham later claim about 50% new material to the script), Kubrick already demonstrates his expertise at setting up and executing complex sequences just as well as his smaller intimate moments of character conflict.
The Criterion edition of the film (this review is for the Blu-ray)is the ultimate edition. It has the correct aspect ratio. The transfer has been lovingly restored from the best elements available and detail, depth and blacks are remarkable throughout the presentation. This is a huge step up from the original DVD. "Paths of Glory" is beautifully rendered on Blu-ray. The mono audio sounds quite good with dialogue quite clear.
Be aware however that there is a jump cut in this restoration where a few frames are missing and UCLA/MGM which restored the film were unable to find adequate source for that footage. It lasts only a second at about 56:04.
As with all Criterion films this comes with a book featuring an essay on the making of the film by film critic/scholar James Naermore, a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick about the making of the film (a bit of trivia--Kubrick "suggested" a less bleak ending in hopes that he could keep the dark ending that is IN the film much as Hitchcock used to bluff the Hayes commission by putting things in his script and sometimes film that he KNEW he would never end up using in the final product), a 1979 interview with star Douglas and new interviews with producer Jan Harlan and James B. Harris as well as actress Christiane Kubrick. We also get a vintage French TV special on the inspiration for the film as well as the original theatrical trailer. The audio commentary by Gary Giddins is quite good providing insight into the filmmaking process as well as themes later elaborated in other Kubrick films.
As with all of Criterion latest Blu-ray releases (and their latest DVD releases as well), this is a top notch highly recommended version of the film. Yes, it is expensive but if you don't want to pay the full retail price wait for a two-for-one Criterion sale (as I did).
While Kubrick directed noteworthy films before "Paths of Glory" this film provided him with the opportunity to step up to bigger, more elaborate productions and demonstrated the themes that would preoccupy for the remainder of his career as a film director. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2010
Fellow Kubrick fans have been waiting for the Blu-ray version of this film for a long time.
I'm very pleased to say that this disc was well worth the wait.
The folks at The Criterion Collection have had my allegiance since the great days of laser discs.
They set the high water mark for uncompromising restorations and digital transfers, not to mention
the exhaustive amounts of supplementary material included with every film.
This BR disc has been given the signature Criterion Collection treatment with wonderful results.
The PQ of the black and white images is awe-inspiring. I had to stop watching it after the first 3
chapters on my 52" XBR in order to project it. Even on a 150" screen ( using a Sony Pearl 1080P projector ) the beautiful images
are sharp, clear and crisp. WOW!
I really liked the menu screen, its basically the signature Kirk Douglas trench walk-through scene tied in an endless loop.
As long as the menu screen is up, Col. Dax will perpetually walk the endless miles of trenches and pass the countless faces of the mud covered soldiers...
very poetic and creative use of menu design.
The intensely informative supplementary material is full of goodies that keeps you entertained for hours.
Arguably one of the best war films ever made, and quite possibly one of the best Blu-ray treatments to grace master Kubrick's work.
I can only hope that The Criterion boys can get their hands on Lolita and Barry Lyndon next.