With this latest release from Eureka Entertainment, part of that label's expansive ‘Masters of Cinema’ series, “Paths of Glory” becomes the final film made by Stanley Kubrick to make it to Blu-ray in the UK. The disc provides strong competition to the US Criterion edition, bringing a trio of exclusive video interview extras and a new commentary track to augment what is an already impressive HD transfer of Kubrick’s 1957 classic: the movie that, in retrospect, can be viewed as the one that announced to the world the director’s entry into the ranks of all-time auteur greats, coming in the immediate wake of the Lucien Ballard-photographed crime noir exploits of “The Killing”, which had done a fine job previously of laying the groundwork as Kubrick’s Hollywood calling card, and indicating to critics and studio executives alike that a huge leap in technical ability and authorial vision had been achieved by this upstart maverick New Yorker subsequent to his fledgling low-budget efforts behind the camera -- namely the later disowned debut “Fear and Desire” and the New York crime thriller follow-up “Killer’s Kiss” -- Kubrick’s fragile, small-scale and self-financed photo-realist beginnings in film-making.
The director’s fourth picture and the second produced in conjunction with his then-collaborator James Harris, “Paths of Glory” saw Kubrick returning to the subject that had inspired his very first film: namely, war -- its social function and the psychology behind the institutions guiding its conduct. In a career that saw only thirteen full features produced over a period of nearly fifty years, four would be classifiable as war films outright but the themes that animated them also re-occur in countless permutations across the rest of the filmography. The War movie provided a saleable genre, but also the extreme environment in which social structures and rules could be examined and satirised to demonstrate, with Kubrick’s cool, blackly humorous gaze, human behaviour torn between rationality and emotion, displaying the ironic situation that bedevils the rational man caught in a labyrinth of societal relations the absurdity of which may well be apparent to him, but upon which he is powerless to act effectively despite their evident ludicrousness.
Unlike “Fear and Desire”, though, which dealt with a fictional war between two unidentified enemies played by the same actors, and which took place in an unknown location (and therefore bills itself very much as a metaphorical construct for the wider themes in play), “Paths of Glory” is an overt historical piece, set behind French lines in 1916 during the First World War, and inspired by a true life incident that was still so controversial in France at the time of the film’s release that it resulted in the picture not being screened there for seventeen years. The screenplay was written by Kubrick in collaboration with novelist and screenwriter Calder Willingham (who is credited with first bringing the strain of black comedy that would become increasingly apparent from now on in Kubrick’s work) and the talented crime writer Jim Thompson, retained after his work on “The Killing”, although his adaptation of Lionel White's crime novel Clean Break had gone unacknowledged by the courtesy of a screen credit. Like all of Kubrick’s work from “The Killing” onwards, “Paths of Glory” was also based on a piece of literature, the plot of Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel having been inspired by events pertaining to ‘the Souain corporals affair’ – said to be one of France’s greatest military injustices, which had led to the deaths by firing squad of four corporals in the French army chosen randomly to be executed as an example to the rest of the companies in their regiment because of the failure of an earlier attempt to regain ground lost to the Germans; although the film could have just as well been referring to any number of similar instances which together resulted in the deaths of over 2000 court-marshalled soldiers executed for ‘cowardice’ during World War I.
The title of the film is retained from Cobb’s novel, and is appropriate to Kubrick’s cinema and its themes on several levels. The phrase was originally taken from the ninth stanza of Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard -- a famous 18th century meditation on death, the pertinent line being: ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’. The novel was named as the result of a competition by the publisher, but in fact the line chosen had already gained its strong association with the slaughter of the First World War many years before: the American journalist and essayist Irvin S. Cobb (unrelated to Humphrey Cobb) had used it as the title of his 1915 non-fiction memoir, which related his experiences of the Great War whilst working for the magazine Saturday Evening Post; and one of British painter Christopher Nevinson’s best known works, today held by the Imperial War Museum, also uses the same title for a 1917 painting that depicts two British soldiers lying face down dead in the mud and tangled barbed wire of a barren battlefield on the Western Front. There is another more formal sense in which the title is especially appropriate to Kubrick’s film of course; for this was the first time the director’s penchant for the reverse tracking shot became especially noticeable and, once and for all, clearly takes on its symbolic value as a visual motif that was to play an essential part from now on in the design and film grammar used by Kubrick’s films to elucidate his recurring thematic concerns.
He’d used the technique as far back as his very first documentary short in 1950 entitled Day of the Fight”, but each of Kubrick’s features, starting most notably with “The Killing”, play out variations on the idea of their characters each being caught up in a system of relations that work like a machine to keep them set upon certain ‘tracks’ that cannot be circumvented or altered, although the struggle in attempting do so is itself an ineluctable part of the human condition. In some of Kubrick’s films these metaphorical tracks have a clear visual analogue: In“2001 A Space Odyssey” it’s the claustrophobic passageways, tunnels and corridors of the space station and the Discovery One spacecraft; in A Clockwork Orange it’s the forbidding concrete underpasses; and in “The Shining” the seemingly unending corridors and the impossible labyrinth in the grounds of the Overlook Hotel fulfil the same function. With “Paths of Glory” the sense of fates locked tight in a groove that can only be set to play out its absurdist course to the inevitable, unavoidable end, is represented by the way in which Kubrick’s camera tracks his characters through the bomb-assailed mire of the WW1 trenches; forward tracking shots trail relentlessly past the war-weary faces of battered, tired troops, lined up like bowling pins being assembled one last time to be knocked down again, this time forever; reverse tracking shots pull away from the bullish, aristocratic generals and colonels who stride confidently and energetically through the weary files of troops, and whose decisions, made miles away behind the lines in the genteel, gilt-edged splendour of a luxury chateau, conceal petty jockeying for positions of power and a bureaucratic obsession with a chain of command that’s based on esteem for outmoded forms of patriotism and ridiculous notions of masculinity and virility founded in pride, all of which results in a murderous form of institutional insanity exerting its complete dominance over the lives of millions. Kubrick’s handling of the centrepiece attack sequence in which the 701 Infantry regiment is sent ‘over the top’ in a doomed attempt to take a fortified German outpost known as ‘the Ant Hill’, was filmed by a line of cameras shooting at a distance from various vantage points, but all tracking in a straight line from right to left in a smooth uninterrupted sequence, until the men get pinned down in no man’s land and the attack comes to a sudden halt. The effect is to produce a scene that reminds one metaphorically of the inhuman industrial nature of the 1st World War’s conduct and planning, picturing Hell as the conveyor belt of a vast deafening machine of destruction that gets an ignoble spanner thrust in its works.
In “The Killing” Kubrick dealt with one man’s attempt to take control of his destiny through the extreme planning out in advance of every conceivable detail in a proposed racetrack heist. Sterling Heyden’s character in that film is trying in effect to take account of every variable in the equation, and therefore to impose total order on the chaos of his existence, to extract himself once and for all from his life as a small-time hood by pulling off one last job with a big enough pay day at the end of it to catapult him to freedom. The film demonstrates how each of his attempts to plan for or to take account of any particular eventuality actually ends up each time multiplying the number of possible unanticipated outcome: he needs to bring other people in on the plot in order to fulfil various roles in the robbery, but they each bring with them a whole slew of extra problems and it becomes impossible to predict how fate will intervene even when one ostensibly had ‘the perfect plan’ set in place at the start. In “Paths of Glory”, Kubrick is coming at a similar theme from a different angle: here the emphasis is on hierarchy and power, how the effects of the effete concerns and recondite plans of those at the top of the ladder trickle down and come to have dire consequences for those at the very bottom; the ordinary soldiers who are ostensibly dying because of the inconsequential and unnecessary power moves being played in a refined game of political chess administered by an unaccountable, degenerate elite whose values positively welcome the deaths of those below them.
Kubrick’s starts the film well away from the squalor of the front lines in a palatial chateau, where the vain and supremely pompous General Paul Mireau (played by the king of arch villainy in cinema, George Macready [“Gilda”], [“Seven Days in May”]) is gently manipulated by Major General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou – a right-wing American actor mentioned by name in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard) into agreeing to an attack already earlier dismissed by Mireau for being impossible and suicidal. In contrast to the long, straight tracking shots that will be seen later in the film relentlessly moving through the trenches, the conversation between Broulard and Mireau that sets in motion the events that will lead to mass slaughter and gross injustice, takes place as the two men circle and admire the ornate (and incongruous in the circumstances) furnishings, carpets and paintings of a vast 18th century drawing room, as though they were engaged in a delicately flirtatious minuet. Kubrick shoots the lengthy scene utilising long takes and the plan-séquence techniques beloved of his cinematic idol Max Ophuls, who pioneered the art of elegant tracking shots making use of swooping dollies and cranes deployed in sinuous camera moves designed to cover multiple set-ups in one extended take, and therefore dispensing altogether with the need for cuts between the shots. Filmed just outside Munich, at the huge Schleissheim Palace later used by Alain Resnais to equally striking effect for ““L'Année dernière à Marienbad” it’s as though the two men are remote Greek gods breathing, in these opulent airy surroundings where glowing light streams in through the windows, the rarefied air of Mount Olympus as they passively decide the fates of hundreds with little regard or concern for the actual consequences of their decisions on the lives of those affected.
We return to the chateau at several other important points in the movie: when their poorly conceived attack (required by Broulard merely to appease newspapers at home and the politicians he is beholden to) inevitably badly fails and a belligerent General Mireau insists on blaming lack of discipline among the men in the regiment for the debacle, it leads to the selection of three soldiers from each company to be court-martialled and executed for cowardice as an example to the entire regiment. This hearing then also takes place at the grand house, in one of its baroque banqueting halls -- a surreally inappropriate venue for such an event (foreshadowing the equally incongruous sight of a space pod pictured in similar surroundings at the climax of “2001 A Space Odyssey”) but one which emphasises the role of pawns that the soldiers unwittingly play in a larger game they have no understanding of or ability to influence, for the hall’s chequered floor design mimics that of a huge chessboard. At the end of the film, the verdict having been delivered and all attempts to reverse it having failed, the two men are conducted forward in a long slow march (more implacable reverse and forward tracking shots!) towards the fate that was always decided for them, still within sight of the vast palace wherein those first plans that would eventually result in this bewilderingly unjust conclusion were laid.
“Paths of Glory” was Kubrick’s first encounter with the Hollywood star machine. Without the pulling power provided by Kirk Douglas agreeing to play the role of Colonel Dax , the commanding officer of the ill-fated regiment, United Artists would never have agreed to pay $850,000 towards the film’s budget and to distribute it despite having already once turned it down. Kubrick and Harris had been released from the development deal they’d previously struck with MGM when it was discovered they’d secretly been working on the film as a side project whilst simultaneously developing another film at MGM, and so they desperately needed this boost that Kirk Douglas was now able to provide. But to accommodate Douglas’s involvement, not only did a third of the budget have to go towards paying the lead actor’s wage bill, but Kubrick and Harris were also forced to sign a stringent deal with Douglas’s production company, which gave Bryna Productions an option on their next five films! (Douglas later released Kubrick from the agreement as a ‘thank you’ for stepping in to direct “Spartacus” at short notice after Anthony Mann was sacked – a costly gesture given the five films that followed!). The focus of the screenplay, which had originally been more of an ensemble piece with no clear lead, had also to be re-oriented so as to give Douglas’s character more of a heroic bent than was called for in the script adaptation Kubrick had set Jim Thompson to write originally.
Some of the ways in which Douglas’s star status is utilised in the film seem fairly traditional and un-ironic: appearing shirtless in his introductory scene for instance -- a fairly routine sight in any Kirk Douglas movie of the period. But it’s noticeable that, even here, what seemingly starts out as an excuse to portray the leading man in a semi-erotic, heroic poise, preparing in his dug-out with an early morning wash, turns into a means of ever so subtly undermining him when he is surprised by an unscheduled visit from General Mireau and has to face his superior in an hastily pulled on and still-unbuttoned uniform jacket, with bare chest beneath. The scene that follows echoes the one between Mireau and Broulard before it, with Dax having now to be persuaded to acquiesce to the storming of the Ant Hill fortress after first, like Mireau himself, deeming it impossible. Whereas before, Mireau was flattered and enticed with intimations of promotion in order to get him to agree to the foolhardy plan, Dax is bombarded with empty appeals to duty and patriotism, both of which are connected to a strong, unyielding belief in a masculine form of virtue. Dax weakly attempts to rebut such notions (quoting Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels) but there is never really any threat of him rejecting them outright. He is, ultimately, part of the system and cannot therefore meaningfully challenge it in any manner likely to lead to success; he is complicit in the common order of things as well as ineffectual in opposing it.
The Kubrick/Willingham/Thompson screenplay also makes Dax a criminal lawyer as well as a commanding officer, who, outraged by Mireau’s insistence on executing three innocent men, elects to represent the unjustly accused soldiers at their court martial, thus giving Douglas another chance to display yet more heroism, this time moral as well as physical. In this way the film allows Douglas pretty much all the perks any leading man could ask for: scenes of him leading the hellish charge across no man’s land during the attack on the Ant Hill are enhanced by others that ascribe to him memorable declarative speeches and monologues during, for instance, the court room interrogation scene. He plays a key role in the movie’s suspenseful second half when Dax makes various legal and psychological moves in his attempts to help the accused men escape the charge, such as threatening to publically reveal that Mireau was responsible for ordering machine gun fire to be turned on his own men for not leaving their trenches when they were pinned down because of the failure of the first wave of the attack. However, the prevailing mood is one of bitter irony and fatalism and all of Colonel Dax’s interventions are ultimately to end in failure.
The accused men, played by the wayward Timothy Carey (sacked before the end of the film for his disruptiveness on set and replaced by a body double in some of the prison cell scenes), Kem Dibbs and Ralph Meeker, are set up from the start to fall: when Mireau comes to visit the men in the trenches on the eve of the attack, and stops occasionally to give a short pep talk to random soldiers, three of the four visited with this honour turn out to be the ones who are later to be chosen as the scapegoats, as though their fates were always marked in advance. One of them is present nearby when Mireau’s jocular ‘are you ready to kill some Germans, soldier?’ is met with incomprehension by a clearly shell-shocked member of the regiment. A pall of comic absurdity and a sense of inevitability descends across the movie from this point on, anticipating the comic insane logic that was to permeate the satire of “Dr Strangelove”. Kubrick spends an excruciating portion of the final part of the film examining the conflicting responses of the three men chosen to be court-marshalled to their coming demise. At one point one of the men struggles to accept the reality of how a cockroach in his cell will still be alive when he is dead the next day, and will therefore have a stronger connection to his wife and family than he will! One of the other men thumps his fist down on the insect, saying: ‘now you’ve got the edge on him!’ The function of religion and how its very ineffectiveness ensures its usefulness is also dramatised beautifully: one of the men, though not having been a believer in life, asks for confession from the priest provided by the army out of a vague awareness that that is what you’re supposed to do in a situation of this sort; this in turn angers the intellectual existentialist among the trio who is morally outraged by the absurdity of the whole process. The two get into a fight over the matter and the intellectual is punched so hard that he is half killed. Aside from the grim irony that religion has just provoked yet more pain and conflict in these men’s lives, the final cruel twist of ironic absurdity is provided by the authorities’ insistence that the dying man be kept alive just long enough to face the firing squad, at which point he will be propped up on his stretcher and slapped into consciousness just before he has to be shot to death!
The film ends on an ambiguous note provided by Kubrick’s future wife Christiane, who plays a female German prisoner of war paraded in front of the French soldiers in a café just before they are to be sent back to the front. She is the only female in the entire film. Throughout there are references to femininity or maternity but they usually have negative connotations (‘If a man’s a ninny let him put on a dress and hide under the bed,’ chortles General Mireau after claiming a crying soldier cannot have shell shock because ‘shell shock’ doesn’t exist). At another point, Colonel Dax is faintly amused when Mireau describes the Ant Hill as being ‘pregnable’ because the term sounds to him like ‘something to do with giving birth’. The whole ethos of the army is portrayed as being contemptuous or dismissive of femininity, and to associate it with emotional outbursts … and emotional outbursts in this environment are of course always associated with weakness and cowardice. In this final scene the men start off mocking, shaming and abusing the woman. But when she starts singing ‘the Faithful Hussar’ (a German folk song about a young soldier whose lover dies while he is away fighting) all of the men fall silent as tears start streaming down their faces. Without explicitly stating it outright, Kubrick counters the soul-destroying masculine rigidity of the army’s attitude by displaying how these men suddenly become aware of the woman’s humanity, and how that unsought awareness in turn humanises them. Nothing will change though; Colonel Dax has just received orders that the men are to return to the Western Front the next morning.
The excellent Master of Cinema Blu-ray release comes with an insightful new commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin, and several short featurettes from Peter Kramer and Richard Combs that provide production history and analysis of this period in Kubrick’s early career. There’s also a lovely and thoughtful fan appreciation running 24 minutes from actor and director Richard Ayoade, as well as a booklet containing two essays: one a new appreciation by Glenn Kenny, and the other a contemporary overview of Kubrick’s position within the Hollywood machine at the time by Colin Young, first published in Film Quarterly in 1959. A concise, powerful and beautifully made film, “Paths of Glory” stands at the crossroads of Kubrick’s career, displaying the innovative nature of his approach to a traditional genre of film-making, whilst preparing the ground for the even more complex and uncompromising masterpieces to come.