Stanley Kubrick’s scorching 1957 court martial drama Paths of Glory, his third bona fide feature following the cult success of Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, makes its way onto Blu-ray this month, the latest addition to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, substantially remastered and with new supporting features.
Based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 anti-war novel inspired by true events which Kubrick had read as a boy, it was adapted by the director, novelist turned screenwriter Calder Willingham (The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Vikings, The Graduate) and crime novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters) and starred Kirk Douglas whose production company had a stake in the film, telling the story of three French soldiers in World War One who were court martialled for cowardice on trumped-up charges.
Already a major star with three Oscar nominations, most recently for playing Vincent Van Gogh the previous year in Lust for Life, Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the 701st Infantry Regiment, the soldiers’ commanding officer and defence lawyer in their court martial in a plot which is relatively simple.
During the French campaign in 1916, preening divisional commander Brigadier General Paul Mireau (Gilda’s George Macready) is persuaded by his wilier senior Major General Georges Broulard (prolific actor Adolphe Menjou in one of his final roles) to carry out a suicidal attack on a German-held position known as the Anthill. Mireau relays these orders to Dax who is, understandably, sceptical but who still heroically leads the first wave of the attack which is spectacularly unsuccessful.
Due to the substantial casualties incurred and the futility of the action, the second wave of soldiers refuse to leave their trenches. Mireau, in a fit of rage, orders the artillery to fire on their own troops to “encourage” them, an order successfully disputed by the artillery commander. Afterwards, in order to save face, Mireau denies he gave any order to kill his own men and persuades Broulard to allow him to court martial three of the surviving soldiers for cowardice, one from each company, to set an example.
With the three soldiers selected at random, apparently a common practice of the time to “boost morale,” at least one has been railroaded by his immediate superior, company commander Lieutenant Roget (Olympic swimmer turned actor turned fighter pilot Wayne Morris), in order to dispose of a witness to his drunken mistake the previous night which resulted in the death of a scout.
Dax, a defence lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men, but to his dismay it quickly becomes obvious that Mireau has arranged a kangaroo court and the outcome has already been decided, the soldiers refused the right to speak openly, their previous military records ignored by the prosecution.
Regarded by many and rightly so as a potent anti-war film, Paths of Glory sees Kubrick’s mature style and thematic concerns beginning to emerge. Unlike the dominant style of the time which primarily consisted of a series of static shots focussed on the actors edited together to create the narrative, Kubrick deploys what would become known as his characteristic fluid camera work, often using a moving camera to follow actors as they walked around or conversely, keeping his camera static while actors walked to and fro across a room.
Coupled with this he eschewed the usual Hollywood practice of having muffled dialogue and sound effects redubbed in post-production in favour of sticking with the original “raw” soundtrack. This combination of stylised visuals and “authentic” sound would become one of his trademarks, and similarly, when it came to his actors, Kubrick deployed a patchwork array of talents.
Effortlessly dominating proceedings with his uber-masculine star persona is Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. His naturalistic performance style is very much in contrast with the rest of the cast. Dax’s bete-noire, Mireau is played by George Macready in a rather elevated theatrical style while Broulard is brought stylishly to life by Adolphe Menjou, a legendary star whose career began in silent cinema and who specialised in playing sophisticated roués performs here as if he were in a screwball comedy.
Of the various other ranks, the acting styles range from intense “method” to perfunctory to pantomime. One of the criticisms levelled at Kubrick through his career was his increasing obsession with the technical aspects of filmmaking at the expense of acting, and this is strikingly apparent here, however Douglas is sufficiently magnetic to compensate for the failings in some of the junior cast members and the clunkier lines in the script.
The extras consist of three specially recorded interviews for this release and a commentary track by film scholar Adrian Martin. The interviewees are as follows: Kubrick expert Peter Kramer who provides a detailed account of the film’s creation, filmmaker Richard Ayoade (The Double) who looks at the film from a writer and director’s viewpoint and film critic Richard Combs who assesses the film’s style.