In the span of two months Criterion has given us two of the best American war films ever made. And again, as with some of the best films about combat, it balances the destruction on and off the battlefield. Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the trials of three soldiers accused of desertion during a clearly futile attack on the battlefields during World War I, is a visual chess match, the quagmire of the trenches moved to the no-less stalemated courtroom. Opening with some of the best scenes of war yet committed to film, it quickly descends into the palatial headquarters of a war and the dark basements of a prison cell. The new bluray from the Criterion Collection does more than clean up the images; it sheds new light on the production and the man behind the camera.
Defending the men is Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas in the prime of his acting and producing days. Made at a time when the star as producer days were making a resurgence in Hollywood, Douglas’ involvement not only secured its production, but also altered its story ever so slightly from the novel and stage versions. As we learn from the essay by James Naremore, the gift of Douglas’ bare chest is just one of the alterations. We also get more of a hero out of Douglas than might be expected, especially considering Kubruck’s output after his two films with the leading man. Yet the film remains a masterpiece, examining the heroism of war, the sad destruction of lives on the firing line, and the glimmers of hope that float on a song. It is a must own.
Of the extras, primary is the restoration of course. One of the few Kubrick films made before his partnership with Warner Brothers still awaiting the deluxe treatment, the image is now even more refined that previous releases. And all the better to see Kubrick’s masterful direction. The tracking shots over the trenches are as beautiful and grotesque as ever. The shots through the trenches themselves are all the more claustrophobic.
But there is more of course. Christiane Kubrick offers her own retelling of the production, taking us through her own life at the time and her casting. She even explains how it was she who picked that final, heartbreaking song to sing. Also included here is a lengthy television interview with Kirk Douglas, in which he is quite candid about his work with Kubrick both on set and off.
In the end, I tend to agree with Christiane Kubrick. There is some hope to be found in Kubrick’s films. Paths of Glory might be his first full expression of both the crippling manifestations of modernity, the machines of war and society, and the sense of entrapment we feel. True, these visions are scary and oftentimes cold. The chessboards, the computers, the city, war—stark, dark places all. The small, insignificant human being, when thrown against this backdrop seems all but lost. And then Christiane sings. A shred of humanity shines through. Of course Kubrick knows better than to let this scene linger; the close-ups of soldiers’ faces are all too brief, albeit striking. But the scene remains one of intensely shared community. It may be a scene of loss, of homesickness for a warm bed and family, or even just the comfort of a beautiful woman. It is certainly a scene of beauty and horror, as we know these men have already been called back to the line. We now have the opportunity to see the film in the best way yet possible, the frontlines brought to us in stunning quality, sometimes too horrible to behold.