Paths of Glory (Blu-ray)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 88 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: October 26, 2010
Review Date: October 10, 2010
One of the greatest war films that’s not really about war itself but about the disparate personalities of war’s participants. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is one of those movies whose power and resonance has only grown in the decades since its initial release. Concerned mostly with an examination into the inflated egos and prideful personalities that are at the core of the decision making during war strategizing, Paths of Glory paints a very ugly picture of the military’s hierarchal structure. Though focusing specifically on an incident in the French army during World War I (which so enraged the powers that be that the movie was banned in France for decades), it’s really not a condemnation of French politics but really a finger-wagging protestation of all politics in which leaders make cavalier decisions about human beings without the best interests of the people under their command as part of their deliberations.
In France in 1916, General Paul Mireau (George Macready) is contrived into sending his regiment on a suicide mission to claim the impregnable “Anthill” position against the Germans by clever General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou)’s promises of another star on his uniform and eternal glory. Though he knows the regiment will lose more than half of its men on such a foolhardy mission, Mireau directs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to carry out his orders. During the attack, portions of the regiment are under such heavy fire that they can’t even leave their foxholes, a situation which so embarrasses Mireau that when the mission fails, he orders that three scapegoats be found to face military court martial for cowardice. Colonel Dax, astounded that men would be put on trial for such a wrongheaded decision from the top and on charges that are patently false, elects to defend the men during their trial.
The script by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson (though several sources claim that Willingham did most of the writing) is based on the antiwar novel by Humphrey Cobb. Kubrick went on in future films to show the egotistical idiocy of the military powerbrokers, but Paths of Glory did it first and perhaps best with less obvious satire than Dr. Strangelove, of course, and more casually than in Full Metal Jacket. The nonchalant air in which these generals talk about lives as if they were tissues easily used and just as easily discarded is appalling, a theme that would fuel many antiwar films after this one in the 1960s once Vietnam became the subject of so much nationwide contention. Kubrick’s camera puts us right into the trenches (stupendous tracking shots follow the general and later the colonel weaving through the structures) and onto No Man’s Land with shells exploding all around them and the grit and grime of war palpable in every frame (at one incredible moment an overhead flair shows us a battlefield we thought empty is actually strewn with bodies). And then later, when we’re at the military tribunal held in an ironic palatial ballroom, the contrast couldn’t be more stunning, emphasized by Kubrick who films it with such fantastic flexibility and variety: close-ups and long shots, from above and below speakers who sometimes occupy center frame and other times are found at the extreme edges using his film canvas with such startling inventiveness.
Kirk Douglas plays the outraged and frustrated Colonel Dax with (unusual for him) restrained fire, and it’s one of his most controlled and effective performances. George Macready as the supercilious General Mireau is loathsome in his injured vanity and pompous humility, probably his greatest-ever performance. Adolphe Menjou doesn’t press too hard with his superiority amid the peacocks who surround him making his General Broulard’s cageyness and guile all the slimier. As the three condemned men, Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey all etch memorable soldiers as victims of the corrupt system. Wayne Morris as the cowardly Lieutenant Roget who sends the man who knows his guilty secret to his death and Richard Anderson as the fawning flunky to General Mireau are also unforgettable.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is faithfully replicated here in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Another of the reference quality black and white transfers offered by the Criterion Collection, the picture quality is nearly perfection (the slightest of scratches was noticed in one binocular shot of the “Anthill”) with superb black levels dialed in with perfect contrast and detail so crisp that the film seems as if it were made yesterday. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio track blends the dialogue, sound effects, and music into an engaging and masterful whole. True to the period in which it was filmed, the mono sound does have some hiss that can be heard during the quieter scenes, but that’s the only real defect in the sound as presented on this disc.
The audio commentary is provided by film critic Gary Giddins, and it is masterfully handled. Giddins offers up background information on the making of the movie, biographies and on-set anecdotes about the actors and director, and scene analysis where appropriate, all in an easy to hear conversational style.
An audio interview with Stanley Kubrick recorded in 1966 is mostly about meeting the actress who would become his wife whom he used in the climactic tavern scene in the movie. It lasts 2 ¼ minutes.
A 1979 television interview with Kirk Douglas discussing his life and career runs for 29 ½ minutes. It’s presented in 1080i.
Producer James B. Harris discusses his working relationship with business partner Stanley Kubrick and especially problems they faced making this movie in a 21 ¼-minute interview presented in 1080p.
Christiane Kubrick talks about her husband’s life and work and her own career as a painter in a 7-minute interview presented in 1080p.
Executive producer Jan Harlan who worked with Kubrick on many of his later projects discusses Kubrick’s career and working techniques in a 9 ¼-minute interview presented in 1080p.
A brief French television report on Theophilo Maupas whose husband’s military trial formed the basis of the story for the movie is offered in a 1080i excerpt that runs for 3 ¼ minutes.
The theatrical trailer (in 1.66:1) is presented in 1080p and runs for 3 minutes.
The enclosed 19-page booklet offers cast and crew lists, the chapter listing, some stills from the movie, and a thoughtful critique of the movie by film writer James Naremore.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
With mocking outrage at the vainglorious military hierarchy, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory continues to exude its power to the present day, and in an era where military decisions still confound and appall us on a regular basis, its message has perhaps never been more pertinent. The Criterion Collection offers up another winner with reference quality picture and bonuses which add interest to the entire enterprise. Highest recommendation!