PATHS of Glory is unquestionably one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.
More than six decades have elapsed since Stanley Kubrick unleashed it on cinema screens, but watching it today on a brand new Blu-ray from Eureka Home Entertainment, it's good to report it has lost none of its power to shock and impress in equal measure.
Kubrick was barely 30 when he helmed this tale of brutal military injustice during the First World War, but across its brief running time of just 89 minutes, he manages to drive home points about class, politics and social privilege, the grim realities of trench warfare and the power of the human spirit, whilst also dazzling us with terrific tracking shots, clammy and claustrophobic courtroom sequences and continually inventive camerawork.
In a career peppered with plenty of game-changing movies, this is up there with his very finest efforts.
Strip away all those technical trimmings and typically stylish embellishments though and what's left is a very simple story driven by a truly explosive central performance from Kirk Douglas. He plays Colonel Dax, a former lawyer in civilian life who takes on the defence of three French soldiers who are randomly accused of cowardice when a doomed mission to take an enemy stronghold that was ordered by their slippery commanding officers fails disastrously.
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As Dax, Douglas is simply stunning. Righteous and bristling with anger, he turns in a supercharged performance that sent his career into orbit. As the reluctant commander who leads the ill-fated attack, he knows how the whole idea was doomed to failure from the start and he knows who to blame as well.
A certain General Mireau (George Macready) had been told by the high command to take down a tough German stronghold called "the Anthill", and after initially refusing to do so he was then bribed into sending his men to certain death in return for a nice little promotion. It's that throbbing sense of injustice that drives Paths Of Glory on so effectively.
With three men picked out randomly to account for the supposed cowardice of the group and facing possible death sentences as a result, Dax must defend them against the corrupt powers that be with all his might.
Co-written by Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham from a novel by Humphrey Cobb, Paths Of Glory is a blend of war movie and courtroom drama, although actual time spent in the courtroom is minimal. Kubrick shoots it with his patented kinetic energy and Douglas roars through his key role like a man on the verge of losing it and punching out every commanding officer in sight.
Despite those genre stylings, this is really a film about morality and class – and, as such, it retains its power to raise the hackles of indignation today just like it must have in 1957.
This new edition offers up a tidy little digital presentation and gathers up an impressive array of extras, from trailers to interviews and audio commentary, but all you really need is the film: as hard hitting anti-war epics go, they don't get much better than this.