Released by: Eureka Masters of Cinema
Released on: September 19, 2016
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Suzanne Christine (Kubrick), Jerry Hausner, Peter Capell, Emile Meyer
An American educated in England, Humphrey Cobb fled to Canada in 1916 to help with the war effort, a full year before the United States became involved the Great War. Among the atrocities he saw were four French soldiers put to death as an example for fellow soldiers believed cowardly by high-ranking officials. In the 1930s, he turned that ordeal into a novel, Paths of Glory, which was published in 1935 and became a bestseller. It was also adapted into a theater play, and Cobb was hired by Hollywood as a screenwriter. At the age of 14, future director Stanley Kubrick read his novel and fell in love with it.
In 1956, Kubrick released his third feature-length film and second film noir, The Killing, which failed to make a dent in the box office but was critically lauded. On the strength of that acclaim, the head of production at MGM, Dore Schary, hired Kubrick to make a film for the studio. Unable to find suitable material, Kubrick proposed an adaptation of Cobb’s Paths of Glory. Schary was later terminated, and Kubrick was forced to take his idea elsewhere. He also found an interested backer in Kirk Douglas, who wanted to play the lead. United Artists, who earlier had been uninterested in the project, changed their minds, and the film went into production in Germany with Kubrick at the helm.
The film followed Cobb’s novel fairly closely, with only a few minor changes, mostly to make the lead character a more ferocious defender of truth, justice, and the American way. The film begins in the trenches of France in 1916. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) asks an underling, General Mireau (George Macready) to take a strategic hill occupied by the Germans. Knowing that doing so will get his men killed, Mireau at first refuses, until he learns that he will be promoted if he does as asked. He requests that Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) lead the assault on the Germans, but Dax protests, realizing the futility of the effort and the loss of lives that will follow. The attack proceeds but fails, and a second group of men refuse to leave the trenches, knowing that they will be killed if they do so. Angered, Mireau orders the soldiers fired on but is refused. Shortly thereafter, Mireau decides to court martial 100 of them for cowardice; after some wrangling, he lowers the number to three (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel), one from each company and all of whom are allegedly chosen at random. A criminal defense lawyer in his former life, Dax acts as the men’s attorney, but the court is stacked against his defendants, and it becomes clear that Dax has his work cut out for him if he is to succeed.
As with Kubrick’s other films up until this time, Paths of Glory failed to ignite the box office. Regardless, it made its money back, and it did receive a great deal of critical acclaim. There was, of course, controversy at its apparently anti-war/anti-military stance, but it resulted in a slew of films that dared to present the horrors of war in a more realistic light, including a film by Hammer Productions titled Yesterday’s Enemy (1959). It also met with censorship abroad.
Clocking in at slightly less than 90 minutes, it moves at a brisk pace, with incident piled upon incident, most of it dialogue driven but captivating nonetheless. The performances are mostly excellent, but the one that isn’t (Timothy Carey’s) is so bad that it’s a pox on the film as a whole. Interestingly, Carey was fired from the film after trying to steal scenes while in the background of individual shots and later faking his own kidnapping to raise press awareness of himself. Too bad his termination came so late in the game; while a few of his scenes were shot with a stand-in, the film would have come close to perfection had all of them been completely reshot with someone who wasn’t a wooden clown.
Regardless, Paths of Glory is strong stuff, a somber message picture wrapped up as a wartime melodrama. Kubrick’s direction is impressive, and it’s easy to see why he went on to such critical and commercial acclaim. He remained a controversial but unique voice in filmmaking, with Paths of Glory the film that pointed the way.
Eureka Entertainment has released Paths of Glory as part of its Masters of Cinema line—with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition—at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. While there has been minor debate about whether the film should be presented at a 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 ratio, the framing looks full and well utilized without seeming tight or distracting. Because the film has been placed on a BD50 with relatively few extras, it has a high bit rate that allows for a more generous expression of detail, which, most of the time, looks terrific. Shot in Bavaria, Germany, there are plenty of old European structures destroyed by allied bombing during World War II to provide sumptuous detail, and never is it marred by serious print damage. Most instances of dirt and debris appear to have been removed, and the clarity with which you see some of the images gives the film a vibrant look it probably hasn’t had since it’s theatrical debut in the late 1950s. Shadow detail is generally good, though there’s a bit too much grain in some spots, and there’s no washout. Fabrics, furniture, the walls of buildings and their attendant rubble, and asphalt or grass… there’s little to complain about here. Eureka has clearly utilized the 2K transfer used by Criterion for its 2010 Blu-ray release. And while that disc is locked to Region A, this one is locked to Region B.
For the film’s primary soundtrack, Eureka has opted for lossless English LPCM 2.0. The score is well handled, and dialogue is clear and easy to understand. There are no issues related to dropout or hiss, no pops or crackles. English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included. There’s also a music and effects track, likewise presented in LPCM 2.0, as is an audio commentary from film historian Adrian Martin. He begins by discussing the controversial aspects of the film, the “absolute injustice” that occurred during WWI, before moving onto the Munich chateau that provides the background for most of the film’s major sequences. As characters are introduced, Martin dissects the relative plot devices and machinations revealed within those characters’ movements, interactions, and locations. Rather than pull what so many commentators do and focus on the actors who play the parts and their backgrounds, Martin remains primarily focused on the film he’s dissecting. That doesn’t mean Martin doesn’t touch on these things; he does. He simply doesn’t see them as the most important aspect of his commentary. Instead, he narrows in on Kubrick’s directorial and narrative approaches and how those two intersect. He does, however, discuss at length Kubrick the man, his art, and his critical reception on the whole, not just related to this film. Thankfully, the issues with actor Carey are also discussed, though Martin views him as a much better actor than he deserves.
There are three featurettes, all recorded in 2016 in English LPCM 2.0 specifically for Eureka’s release. The first is from film historian Peter Kramer, who treads some of the same ground as Martin’s commentary, though he tends to focus on the film’s production history rather than its meaning. The interview runs 14:33. Next up is film director Richard Ayoade, who focuses on the directorial choices that Kubrick made in interpreting the script and shooting the film. The interview, in which Ayoade puts to rest the notion that Kubrick was not an emotional director, runs for 23:34. For some reason, the audio recording is a little difficult to understand, requiring the sound to be turned up. Finally, the interviews conclude with writer and film critic Richard Combs. This last featurette runs 9:58 and immediately sets itself apart when Combs discusses how Kubrick transitions from film noir to war drama.
Rounding out the extras is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which runs 3:01.*
The Final Word:
Paths of Glory is an example of Kubrick on the rise, headed toward the greatness that would define his later career. Eureka’s release utilizes a sharp transfer, good sound, and some newly recorded extras to offer a strong accentuation to Criterion’s release. If you’re a big fan of the film and already have Criterion’s disc (and are region free), the extras compiled by Masters of Cinema should be incentive enough to add it to your collection.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.
*Note: The booklet that accompanies the release was not provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!