Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

Now Available to Own


For Stanley Kubrick devotees who've already traveled down these particularly tragic Paths in the past, perhaps now that it's been polished to an even brighter sheen as immediately evidenced in Criterion Collection's recent high definition Blu-ray release, the deceptive simplicity of the filmmaker's 1957 anti-war masterpiece becomes even more apparent than we'd ever noticed before.

From the intentionally stark documentary style black and white cinematographic presentation that combines an element of theatrical newsreel footage as well as gritty realism to its straightforward storytelling approach, Kubrick's Paths of Glory is equally notable for the director and co-writer's decision to emphasize conversational debate over Oscar clip ready passionate speech-making.

Whereas Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb took an “insane” approach to showcase the utter insanity of war, the calculated sanity and matter-of-fact depiction employed in Glory that served as filmmaking calm in the face of the mad storm of inhumanity as the events unfolded, made Kubrick's work as devastating as it is utterly believable.

And one of the things that makes Glory remain just as startlingly topical as it must've been to a shocked public over five decades ago is the fact that for the entirety of its succinct eighty-eight minute running time, we felt as though we were eavesdropping on the type of hypothetical exchanges that could occur not only in war but also in the worlds of politics and business.

Thus, suddenly, a middle manager in the middle of America who'd never served a day in the military could relate to what undoubtedly Hollywood was hoping would've been a more traditional World War I picture. Continually in Glory we watch in silent horror as individuals place power, self-preservation, rank and the possibility of promotion ahead of common sense by shifting guilt and responsibility to others so that no “one” will be left to flip the switch once the mental chess-like game of musical chairs reaches its conclusion.

Loosely based on a horrific true story that had inspired Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel of the same name (which had been derived from a Thomas Gray poem), Glory centers on two futile battles – one that's set in the field and one that occurs during a military trial.

Without adequate support or supplies to help the French troops led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) succeed, the men were given an impossible task after being senselessly ordered to take back a German dominated “anthill” by superior officers fixated on their own careers rather than the fact that such a mission could not be accomplished.

Standing by his men, Dax volunteers to defend a trio of randomly selected French soldiers who've been served up to die as sacrifices in order to punish their regiments for cowardice and mutiny for failing to take part in the aforementioned suicide attack that slaughtered most of the troops.

Yet when such a horrific situation leaves the fingers of so many superiors pointing at one another without anyone taking on even the slightest bit of blame, Colonel Dax realizes that getting anyone to listen to reason -- whether in the prejudicially biased trial or behind closed doors --  will be be harder than any battle he's ever faced before.

Without the feeling of solidarity or fighting for a common cause that you have in the field, Dax discovers that the real war to be won is one of hearts, minds and egos. And with this in mind, Kubrick's searing, subversive effort continues full speed ahead to its unforgettable conclusion, which easily remains one of the most memorable and emotionally stirring sequences produced over the course of his entire career.

So powerful that it's discussed in one of Criterion's fascinating extras, the finale transcends language, culture and time. You don't need to speak German to understand exactly what's going through the heads of the French soldiers in a bar who are gathered around a young, terrified German woman (incidentally the one who became the love and wife of Kubrick's life) that's been forced to sing for their entertainment.

And in its own way, the film's understated conclusion says more about the futility of sacrifice, inhumanity and thankless nature of war than all the epic battles or impassioned speeches we'd later see in the trendy '70s influx of anti-war Vietnam pics.

Moreover, it's this revelation that makes Glory so ahead of its time when you consider the era in which it was released. With Cold War fueled paranoia finding us in the midst of a skirmish with an enemy we couldn't really “see” decisions were made behind closed doors, the '50s found us enjoying the bubble of suburbia. Furthermore, Kubrick's work debuted roughly a decade after patriotism was at all-time high following World War II and a decade before we would find patriotism at an all-time low when presented with a war of a completely different kind.

Needless to say, upon its release, Paths of Glory didn't pack the same kind of urgent wallop that the upcoming Manchurian Candidate, Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Fail Safe titles offered. Nonetheless, it did cement a solid fan base among scholars and critics for the New York director.

Yet more importantly, Glory eventually grew more potent with time and juxtaposition, if you weigh this film's simple style with the wild one Kubrick chose to detonate in his anti-war, nuclear warning picture Dr. Strangelove to understand and appreciate the masterful way he strategized both productions for unforgettable cinematic victory.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.