Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel Paths of Glory, the name of which was taken from the line "The paths of glory lead but to the grave," from Thomas Grey's 1750 poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," was inspired by the Souain corporals affair during WWI when four French soldiers were executed to set an example to the rest of the troops. Stanley Kubrick's 1957 adaptation exposes the injustice of soldiers sacrificed in vain due to the weakness and corruption of their superiors.
The film opens in France 1916 as General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) comes to see General Paul Mireau (George Macready), who works in an opulent castle (one that Criterion viewers may recognize from 'Last Year at Marienbad'). Broulard has brought with him a very difficult mission: to take the Anthill, a location where the Germans are hunkered down. Mireau doesn't think the 8,000 soldiers serving under him can take on this seemingly impossible assignment. That is, until he's bribed with a promotion and another star.
Mireau heads to the trenches to order the mission. So focused on his prize, he's oblivious to the wounded around him. When Mireau encounters a soldier suffering from shell shock, he assaults the man in a misguided effort to get him to snap out of it, similar to an incident with U.S. General George S. Patton during WWII. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas, who pressured United Artists into making the film), the foremost criminal lawyer in France before the war, is dumbfounded as Mireau causally predicts 55 percent of the men being lost. As the attack approaches, the audience is presented with a much more believable war experience than was usually shown in the movies as some suffer from doubt, cowardice, and even friendly fire.
Kubrick, along with cinematographer Georg Krause and his team, get great footage during the assault on Anthill sequence. The wide shots give a great sense of the landscape and the difficulty of the task, while the close-up tracking shots place the viewer right in the middle of the action.
While the battle rages, B Company sits in the trenches, because the mission is suicide. Mireau is furious and wants heads to roll for their cowardice. Three men are chosen to be court-martialed and executed. It is supposed to be random, but the choices suggest commentary by the creators. Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because he has damaging information about a superior; Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is selected because he is deemed a "social undesirable," which has racist connotations; and to call attention to the absurdity Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen at random even though he has previously been awarded for his bravery and was knocked unconscious during the attack. The film then becomes a courtroom drama as Dax defends his men against judges stacked against him.
While 'Paths of Glory' could have ended on a negative note, there's an epilogue attached where a female German singer (Susanne Christian, who would become Stanley's wife) entertains the French soldiers in a tavern. The men are whooping and hollering like animals as the scared, young woman sings, but as they listen, their shared humanity is revealed, making as good a case against war as the corrupt military structure does.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Paths of Glory' (#538 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 20-page illustrated booklet containing James Naremore's essay "We Have Met the Enemy...".
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. The liner notes reveal it "was created on an HD Spirit 2k from a 35 mm fine-grain positive from UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt's collection." It has been cleaned up using "MIT's DRS system and Pixel Farm;s PFClean system" and was supervised by Kubrick's former technical assistant Leon Vitali.
Right from the opening shot, the black and white looks glorious as it demonstrates itself to be strong across the gray scale and offers great contrast. The blacks are inky and shadow delineation is very good.
Details are frequently presented well, though there are occasional patches of softness, and they help extenuate the difference in the classes, such as the texture of Mireau 's clean uniform to the dirty ones worn by the men in the trenches. Very fine detail can be seen in the officers' well-groomed hair also. The rendering of ornate architecture's textures, particularly in the room used for the court martial, help create bring depth to the scene. As does the staging of the battle where men at different distances can be clearly seen. The battlefield also offers things like mud, barbed wire, and smoke. Fine specks of dirt can be seen flying through the air from explosions.
Grain can be seen throughout but it isn't distracting. There is quite a bit in the POV shot from Chapter 11 of Dax walking down trench, which is used on the disc's menu. There is some slight wear and print damage evident in chapter 10 damage where the men talk in the barracks about the difference in dying or being killed.
The audio comes in English LPCM 1.0 and was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm monaural magnetic track from Gitt's print.
The dialogue is always clear, and there's some good echo on Dax during the courtroom scene that gives the room space. The explosions are as good expected for a mono track over 50 years old, and the subwoofer offers feint support. The track balances the elements well and offers good dynamics, best demonstrated by the machine gun. There's a low rumble as the gun fires and a high-pitched whine as the bullets pass close by. Dax's high-pitched whistle also shows the top of the range.
Overall, a fine presentation of the film's soundtrack.
Stanley Kubrick made clear he was on a path of directing glory with this well-crafted film that suggested people question authority a few years before Timothy Leary made the phrase fashionable. Kirk Douglas gives a great performance in this different take on a war picture and is owed a debt for helping with its production. Criterion honors the work of everyone involved with their usual high quality product.