AS ANTI-war war movies go, Paths Of Glory is pretty great. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1957, it was based on Humphrey Cobb’s tale of five French soldiers charged with mutiny and executed during the First World War. It was that subject matter that saw the film banned in both France and Spain (French authorities finally deemed the film fit for release in 1975 but Spanish audiences had to wait until 1986 to see it.)
Watching Eureka’s brand new Blu-ray transfer of the film, it’s easy to see why those nations balked. Uncomfortable viewing as it may have made for many, there’s no denying this is a masterpiece of war-movie-making.
The setting is France 1916 and Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a respected officer, is ordered to attack Anthill, an important German stronghold. Everyone, with the exception of General Paul Mireau (George Macready) who sees it as a chance for personal glory, knows it’s essentially a suicide mission but orders are orders and Dax leads his men into battle.
After the subsequent massacre, with soldiers chopped down by ceaseless machine-gun fire is seen by an entire company waiting in the trenches to provide support, they refuse to get involved and stay firmly in position. Disgusted that his plans for glory are stalling, Mireau orders his gunmen to open fire on the men in the trenches. One lone officer (John Stein) refuses to obey the order and so a court martial is organised to deal with this challenge to military authority.
General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) decides that rather than punish the whole division, three soldiers should be pulled from the ranks to stand trial. Outraged by the injustice of this decision Dax, a former lawyer, offers to defend them.
Where other Hollywood films would turn this into a brave battle for justice, Kubrick opts for a more realistic approach and shows the trial as little more than a shambles and the soldiers, despite their innocence, are swiftly found guilty and sentenced to die.
Kubrick coldly portrays the aloof, ego-driven madness of the officers and watching Dax (Douglas at his humanist best) attempt to explain to General Mireau the madness of his mission still makes for powerful viewing today. Although the film is set during the First World War the themes of human decency in the face of blind patriotism still ring sadly true today.
Kubrick being Kubrick, there is much to admire technically amid the human drama. The director provides luxurious long continuous shots and unforgiving close-ups. What could in lesser hands have wound up an overwrought melodrama is instead a masterclass in tension building.
Kirk Douglas is superb as the principled but doomed Colonel Dax, a man who knows he can’t win but feels he has to make a stand. Equally impressive turns from Menjou and Macready as the heartless French generals who won’t budge on their outlandish decisions make this a brilliant slice of war-movie-making.
Eureka’s new Blu-ray shows the film in all its pristine black and white glory.