Friday, October 22, 2010

Paths of Glory

Back when Stanley Kubrick still had all of his hair and was just making a name for himself in film, he caught a lucky break by attracting the already famous Kirk Douglas to star in and champion this powerful antiwar film. While it’s not clear that the star’s heroic tendencies on screen suitably merged with the material or the budding auteur director, there’s no denying that the film is completely engrossing and a vital viewing experience. With a sparkling new Criterion release, viewers now have the luxury of enjoying the best possible version of this largely forgotten gem.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a French officer in charge of a battered regiment at the front lines of World War I. His men have been pinned down by German artillery spewing from an unassailable stronghold called The Anthill, offering them no hopes of advancement. When his superior officer is offered a promotion in exchange for a foolhardy move on the German position, he orders Dax's regiment into action. When the mission inevitably fails and his men retreat to their trenches, Dax is forced by his general to send three men to their deaths at the hands of their own firing squad as scapegoats and as punishment for the perceived cowardice of the entire regiment.

Douglas is steely and smug in his self-righteous indignation at the atrocities of war transpiring around his character. He cuts an entirely heroic figure, both leading the charge on the battlefield and later in the courtroom as self-appointed counsel for the condemned men, making him appear as such a shining savior that he nearly walks on water. He was clearly the star and the main draw of the film, so if his overemphasized heroism is what helped it get made it’s a fair tradeoff for the existence of the potent final product. The power-crazed general (George Macready) is suitably devilish, while the soldiers are all adequate with the exception of the particularly good Ralph Meeker as one of the three condemned men and the particularly odd and miscast (and eventually fired) Timothy Carey as another condemned soldier. There’s also a brief appearance by Richard Anderson as the court martial prosecutor, instantly recognizable to TV viewers of a certain age thanks to his later role as Oscar Goldman on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.

Kubrick's film does a sublime job of criticizing the folly of war as well as the corrupt and delusional leaders calling the shots from their ivory towers. The film was banned in France for many years after its release, but the situations presented are ultimately universal and timeless in spite of their basis in historical fact, making this far less a condemnation of French military history than the political and self-serving maneuverings that can lead to such tragic results in any land. Kubrick's gritty battle footage and miserable trench conditions contrast so sharply with the ornate headquarters of the aloof generals that there's no shade of gray about the true enemy in the film. Although it sounds depressing, it's an enthralling and enriching cinematic treasure thanks to Kubrick's thoughtful, assured direction.

The restored and refined image quality of this release on Blu-ray is breathtaking, with such crystal-clear depth, contrast and detail of its black and white images that I wanted to crawl inside them in spite of the war taking place. It’s almost certain that there has never been a more precise and pristine viewing experience of this film, even during its original theatrical release. This is especially obvious when viewing the apparently unrestored theatrical trailer available as a bonus feature, as the images there appear as alternately washed-out and murky as one might expect. Comparing the riveting tracking shot through a soldier-filled trench in the trailer and then in the movie reveals such a vast improvement that the restored scene virtually cries out with the silent looks of desperation and resignation on the faces of the hundreds of anonymous soldiers. The high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and manually cleaned to remove flaws such as dirt and scratches. The sound retains the original mono presentation, remastered at 24 bits and completely uncompressed on the Blu-ray version.

This being Criterion, the bonus features are extensive and fascinating. They include a new audio commentary track featuring film critic Gary Giddins, a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick supplemented by stills, new video interviews produced exclusively for this release with Kubrick’s longtime executive producer Jan Harlan, Paths of Glory producer James B. Harris, and actress/wife Christiane Kubrick (who appeared in the final scene of the film). There’s also a brief French TV news segment about the real-life World War I execution that inspired the film, and some rare footage I enjoyed the most: a convivial and wide-ranging 1979 British TV interview with Douglas that finds the relaxed star surveying his life and career including his experiences making this film.

“Paths of Glory:Criterion Collection” is available for purchase on October 26th, 2010. For more information, visit

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