Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
How revered is Stanley Kubrick? He made a mere 13 full-length features in his lifetime, and a whopping 10 of them appear on The List. Some of those (say Lolita, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut) could be dumped without much fuss, and his third film, The Killing, should probably be added. I’ve seen most of Kubrick. In fact, one of the only ones I hadn’t still seen was Paths of Glory, a film that I’ve heard nothing but good things about. Thus, with expectations high, I started watching.
I have a hypothesis concerning war films. There are a lot of great World War II films, a number of great Vietnam War films, but very few great World War I films. When it comes to WWI films, the bulk of the good ones come from places other than the United States. There are two reasons for this, I think. The first is that unlike most of the wars in which the U.S. participated, we were in World War I for a relatively short period. While the countries of Europe raged against each other, the U.S. sat back watching until the very end. The second reason is the way form the war took. It may not have been the least mobile war in history, but it certainly ranks. Front lines changed almost not at all for years.
Paths of Glory starts in France with General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) paying a visit to General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Mireau is charged with having his men take a German position called “the Ant Hill.” It is a fearsome position, and the casualties of an already shell-shocked group of men. The support will be thin and there will be almost no preliminary artillery barrage to help soften the position. The man charged with the assault is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a soldier once known as the premier criminal lawyer in France before the war. Knowing that he will likely lose as many as 60% of his troops, he nonetheless prepares them for the deadly climb over the top and against the enemy fortifications. While General Mireau claims to have the best interests of his men at heart, a successful taking of the Ant Hill will earn him another star.
The attack is an unmitigated disaster, destroying the men and inflicting terrible casualties. When the men don’t leave the trenches and press the attack fast enough, Mireau orders the artillery to fire on the position of his own troops to force them up and over. Needing scapegoats to cover their painfully bad decision, the generals in charge of the operation decide that the fault for the failure should fall not on themselves but on the troops themselves. Mireau initially wishes to court-martial 10 men from each company, but is eventually convinced to try three, one from each company in the First Battalion.
And, as should be expected here, the trial is a sham. Dax is barely able to question his own charges, virtually every line of questioning is shut down. It is a trial merely for show and to protect the reputations and careers of the generals in question. Each of the three men are chosen for this kangaroo court by different methods. Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because his commanding officer (Wayne Morris) not only dislikes him, but because Paris knows of his commander’s real cowardice in the face of the enemy. Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is selected because his commander believes him to be socially undesirable. Finally, the twice-decorated Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lot from the surviving men of his battalion.
Paths of Glory is a model of cinematic efficiency. The characters are established, the attack happens, and both the legal guilt and innocence and the actual guilt and innocence in under 90 minutes. In his later years, Kubrick wasn’t known for this sort of brevity. Of his films that followed this one, only Dr. Strangelove is less than 100 minutes and of the rest, only Full Metal Jacket is under two hours. I like this quick and effective Kubrick.
So let’s get to the meat of it here. Everything I have heard in the past about Paths of Glory is right. This film is incredible in all respects. In its efficiency, it manages to tell a gripping story without letting up and without a place for the viewer to stop and catch his or her breath. It exposes the hypocrisy of the command and commanders in a way that few films do or can. Kubrick seemed to enjoy sticking it to the military—he certainly didn’t pull punches with Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket--but nowhere more effectively than here. Here, there is no black comedy. There’s only hypocrisy.
I admit to being a Kubrick fan. Even his films that fall short of brilliant are still worth watching, and there’s a reason that more than 75% of his feature-length output is considered must-see. Of all his films, Paths of Glory ranks in the top tier. This is as effective as Kubrick gets and as edgy as he gets. There may be more important films in his filmography, and there may be some that are as good, but there are none better.
Even those who don’t normally watch or enjoy war films will find something here. Much like The Ox-Bow Incident is a morality play that happens to be a Western, Paths of Glory is a morality play and a judgment that merely takes place in military clothing. And holy shit is it ever worth watching.
Why to watch Paths of Glory: It’s Kubrick!
Why not to watch: Learn this now: the best war movies make you angry.
Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.
I find anger to be an emotion not often found in film. Happiness, sorrow, pain, these are emotions that are "easier" to depict, but anger, anger doesn't pop up that often. But Paths of Glory makes me angry. Really, really angry.
The last scene. With the song. That scene just kills me. It's a surprising scene in that at first, it doesn't seem to "fit" with the rest of the film, but I think it's wonderful to bring the focus from the officers back to the soldiers at the very end. And it's shockingly emotional for Kubrick, but in a fantastic way.
This is a stunning film. Totally agreed with what you wrote.
Kubrick is hit or miss with me, but I really adore Paths of Glory. I rank it at the top of the best WWI movies I've ever seen. For me, Kubrick's early period (this, Spartacus, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove) is his best--it just gets weird starting with 2001 (although, I did like Full Metal Jacket).ReplyDelete
@Sio--I don't think it's that hard to make an audience indignant, even righteously so. But real anger is difficult. Creating real contempt in your audience for characters or situations is damn hard. But Paths of Glory does this. And it does it very quickly--in fact part of that anger comes from how quickly the trial goes. It's also a hell of a performance from Kirk Douglas. The moment when he dresses down the general at the end is gold.ReplyDelete
@Kim--A Clockwork Orange is still my favorite Kubrick, but I tend to agree. I like Lolita more than most people seem to and Dr. Strangelove is unlike anything else out there. This one? Holy crap have I been missing out!
The Criterion Collection commentary on this film by critic Gary Giddins is one of the best I've heard. (You know you're a film geek when you start rating DVD commentaries)ReplyDelete
Since almost every DVD (and now Blu-Ray) I own I buy used, I don't have a large number of Criterion DVDs. My copy of this is the standard old version with no commentary track.Delete
Fight Club has a great commentary. Also, if I don't mention the commentary on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Chip will threaten me (it really is a fun commentary, though).
I wouldn't have threatened you, but I would have mentioned it. It's very fun. And Roger Ebert's commentary for Citizen Kane is not to be missed.Delete
Ebert did a good one for Casablanca, too.Delete
I should watch more commentary tracks.Delete
Steve, it's interesting that you mention hearing only good things about Paths of Glory. I watched it maybe five years ago and thought it was great. I liked how Kubrick let the actors run the show, especially Douglas. What surprises me is that I rarely hear it listed among the better Kubrick films. I think it's forgotten by a lot of film fans when they look at Kubrick's career. I'm right with you on this movie.ReplyDelete
I think you're right. A lot of Kubrick's later work is so influential and at times so controversial that it might well have a tendency to overshadow something like this.Delete
Phew. I'm glad after all the talking up of this film I did that it didn't disappoint you. I consider this one of the very best war films ever made. And in regards to WWI films, All Quiet of the Western Front ranks right up there with it for me. It's not a coincidence that both are anti-war films.ReplyDelete
As for Kubrick, I am all over the scale with him, from absolutely loving to absolutely hating. For me Paths of Glory ranks second only to Spartacus from Kubrick's works. Like an earlier commenter I seem to prefer his early works the best. I will say that I would place A Clockwork Orange third, in case you were wondering.
And the most chilling thing about Paths of Glory is knowing that it wasn't made it. It was based on real events. So much so that France banned this film for decades.
The third to last sentence should have ended "...it wasn't made up." Tired brain. Sorry.Delete
I wasn't aware that this was based on real events, but I'm not surprised. The military in general makes a lot of mistakes, and the French military certainly still hasn't quite lived down the Dreyfus affair.Delete
I get being all over the place on Kubrick. I think he's got some much lesser films, but even those are worth seeing at least once (I'm thinking of Barry Lyndon as I write that).
And I agree on how it approaches the quality of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Actually, after a few minutes thought, I think Paths of Glory might exceed the quality of All Quiet on the Western Front.Delete
They are both five star films for me so I would have a hard time picking either one over the other. Along with Das Boot they are the only war films I've rated that highly. Schindler's List is also five stars from me, as is Casablanca, if you consider them war films.Delete
I grew up on war films. I'd put Stalag 17, Mister Roberts and a few others in that top echelon.Delete
Regarding World War I films: The World War I film I most want to see is the one they are making in The Stunt Man.ReplyDelete
That's a hell of a good point! Dammit...now I want to watch it, too.Delete
There's an early 1930s World War I film that I like a lot that doesn't seem to get much attention. It's called Ace of Aces and it stars Richard Dix.Delete
It's got its problems. The anti-war message it's terribly overdone and it has some very clumsy transitions. But it's short, and once it gets to the good stuff - Richard Dix's experience as a flying ace for the bulk of the movie - I found it to be a very satisfying World War I movie.
Expect a lot of crazy 1933 movie stuff.
Also check out: The Lost Patrol, The Last Flight and The Lost Squadron for some interesting World War I-related movies.
At the risk of heresy against All Quiet on the Western Front, I think this might be the best World War I film I've ever seen.Delete
My only experience with Richard DIx is Cimarron, which I didn't like much. I should probably give him another chance one of these days.
Richard Dix also starred in a series of films based on "The Whistler" radio show. They're very low budget and kind of silly, but I like them in the same way I like super-cheap Lugosi films, or the Charlie Chan films with Sidney Toler.Delete
I love it when a movie can trigger a blaze of comments like this one. There is so much good to say about this movie and I am pleased to see we are not alone.ReplyDelete
You already know that I liked it for the same reasone you did. My only comment here is that I think there is a bit of ultra black sardonic humour here. Those generals are completely exposed as incompetent and vain fools. Watching Mireau actually made me chuckle. What an idiot.
You may be right about the sardonic humor. It's not as blatant as in his other war films, though. There is something to the idea of the generals being exposed for what they are--but they are exposed to us, and perhaps to the men. They may not be smart enough to be exposed in this way to themselves.Delete