Stanley Kubrick's devastating antiwar masterpiece gets the 4K UHD treatment, and thanks to a brand new Dolby Vision HDR transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and immersive audio, it hits harder than ever before. A searing adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's novel about the bogus court martial of three French soldiers wrongly accused of cowardice in World War I, Paths of Glory depicts the horrors of trench warfare with visceral intensity while exposing military corruption, hypocrisy, and egotism. A magnetic Kirk Douglas leads a top-flight cast, but Kubrick's impeccable craftsmanship is the real star of this explosive, unforgettable film. Must Own.
"One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then."
That audacious line, spoken with flippant abandon by General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), tidily sums up the shocking central theme of Paths of Glory, director Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's novel about bureaucratic abuses and atrocities within the French military ranks during World War I. Still affecting and often horrifying 65 years after it premiered, Kubrick's film brutally depicts the savage violence on the battlefield and its repugnant arrogance and self-righteousness off it. Paths of Glory didn't earn any money at the box office, but it cemented Kubrick's burgeoning reputation as one of Hollywood's most talented and innovative directors and stands as one of his finest films.
Based on an actual incident, Paths of Glory searingly chronicles how a wounded ego inspires the court martial of three innocent soldiers on cowardice charges. After General Broulard promises a skeptical General Paul Mireau (George Macready) a promotion if he agrees to oversee the seizure of an insignificant parcel of land called the Ant Hill, despite the impossibility of success and certainty of mass casualties, Mireau tasks the exhausted, battered, and depleted regimen of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to carry out the suicidal mission.
Dax's worst fears are realized when the German forces decimate the first wave of French soldiers, with whom Dax charges into battle. The senseless carnage spooks the rest of the troops under the leadership of the often drunk Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), whose panic attack during a scouting mission the night before caused the death of an underling. Roget's men refuse to fight, despite Dax's impassioned pleas for backup. Their inertia enrages Mireau, who orders his own artillery to fire upon the regimen to flush the troops out of the trenches and onto the battlefield. The artillery officer, however, refuses to execute such a rash directive by verbal decree and the disastrous mission ends in failure.
To save face and send a message to the regimen that such insubordination won't be tolerated, Mireau orders each company to select one soldier to be court-martialed for cowardice. If convicted, the penalty will be death by firing squad. One of the men, Private Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel), previously received citations for bravery, while the other two, Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Private Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey), are targeted by their commanding officers. Dax, an attorney in his private life, volunteers to defend the men against the outrageous charges, but it soon becomes apparent the tribunal is heavily biased, sealing the men's dire and unjust fate.
Long before Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory immersed its viewers in the terror, chaos, and brutality of war as fully as the era's censors would permit. The siege sequence, which comprises just a fraction of the film, is massive in scope and dazzlingly executed, with lengthy tracking shots following Dax and his men as they doggedly press forward, navigating dozens of ditches, dodging bullets and exploding shells, and trampling around dead bodies. The reconnaissance mission the night before is equally stunning, as the three soldiers crawl through the mud in utter blackness, then see the array of mangled corpses strewn around them when parachuting flares from the enemy illuminate the battlefield.
Kubrick also masterfully depicts the filthy, inhumane trenches that are packed to the gills with wounded, shell-shocked, frightened, fatigued, and despondent soldiers awaiting the next siege with catatonic dread, then contrasts those disturbing images with the luxurious, palatial army headquarters where the pompous, pigheaded, self-serving commanders spin their strategic webs with nary a thought for the human toll their grandiose, often misguided plans will exact. The events that transpire in both locales are equally appalling, but in very different ways.
The combat scenes alone hammer home the story's antiwar message, but the bulk of Paths of Glory isn't about the senseless death on the battlefield, it's about the commanders' insufferable conceit ("There is no such thing as shell shock," Mireau resolutely says), cavalier attitude toward casualties, and willingness to sacrifice lives for career advancement, disciplinary purposes, and self-preservation. Their behavior shocks and disgusts Dax and we share his revulsion while our hearts bleed for the doomed men who are scapegoats for the officers' incompetence and victims of their bruised egos.
This damning portrait of the French military caused Paths of Glory to be banned in Germany until 1959, Switzerland until 1970, France until 1975, and Spain until 1986. The controversial themes even rankled the U.S. military, which prohibited the exhibition of the film on its bases in America and around the world.
Kubrick's artistry enhances the narrative's potency and grabs the lion's share of attention, but the contributions of the perfectly cast actors cannot be underestimated. (Yes, they all have American accents, but that didn't bother me a bit.) Douglas files a typically intense yet measured turn as Dax, but it's the supporting players who really rivet our attention, and it's mind-boggling none of them nabbed Oscar nods. (It's also mind-blowing that Paths of Glory was shut out of every single Oscar category.) In one of his final roles, Menjou gives one of his best performances, embodying the stuffy, jovial, out-of-touch general who dangles promotions like carrots in front of his hungry officers. Macready, whose other great portrayal came in the classic 1946 film noir Gilda, matches him with an ice-cold portrayal that chills to the bone.
Morris is equally frightening - and devilishly good - as the true coward of the piece, a man willing to falsify reports and eliminate adversaries to keep his position of power. His scenes with the über-talented Meeker, who's both heroic and heartbreaking, crackle with tension, and the work of Carey, who follows up his quirky performance in Kubrick's The Killing with an even more eccentric one here, and Turkel, who would memorably play the sinister Overlook Hotel bartender in Kubrick's The Shining 23 years later, impress as well. The only woman in the cast, Susanne Christian, who tearfully sings a German folk song in the movie's touching final scene, married Kubrick the year after the film's release and remained his wife until his death in 1999.
Paths of Glory steered the Hollywood war movie away from propaganda and into the realm of reality, picking up where All Quiet on the Western Front left off a generation before and paving the way for other graphic, probing, and controversial war films in the coming decades. It also established Kubrick as one of a brash new breed of directors eager to buck the cinematic establishment and blaze their own trail. If The Killing put Kubrick on the map, Paths of Glory launched his journey to the apex of the industry. The trajectory would be steep and the trip swift, but with so much talent on display, his ascension surprised no one.
Paths of Glory remains an immortal movie because, like its director, it's authentic. Kubrick respects his story, tells it faithfully, enhances it with style and a keen artistic eye, and never loses sight of the important themes that make it percolate and resonate. Though the film's title is taken from a line in a Thomas Gray poem that reads, "the paths of glory lead but to the grave," for Kubrick, this Paths of Glory was a path to greatness, and that greatness endures to this day.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Paths of Glory arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. There is no standard Blu-ray edition of the film included in this release. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 4K UHD transfers of Kino's two previous Kubrick releases - Killer's Kiss and The Killing - are quite impressive, but Paths of Glory outclasses them both. Struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative (the 2011 Criterion Blu-ray used a 35 mm fine-grain positive), the brand new 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR faithfully honors George Krause's cinematography and looks about as vibrant, detailed, and filmic as any black-and-white Ultra HD presentation I've seen. Grain levels fluctuate depending on light levels, but never to jarring degrees. Some interior shots exhibit a lovely silky appearance, while a marvelous gritty look predominates in the grimy trenches, dank, dark bunkers, and on the muddy, smoky battlefield. The digital noise that often crops up on the solid backgrounds of both Killer's Kiss and The Killing is largely absent here. A few instances can be detected, but they're blessedly brief. Even during the pitch-black reconnaissance scene, black levels remain solid and inky, and the gray daytime sky, shafts of white sunlight streaming through windows, and harsh illuminations from naked lightbulbs in the underground bunkers stay stable as well.
The perfectly pitched contrast seamlessly adjusts to interior and exterior scenes and different times of day, while superb clarity highlights fine details like bits of falling debris, wood grains and wall textures, the lavish decor of the castle that houses the military brass, and the medals, insignia, and scuffs on the soldiers' uniforms, helmets, and hats. The finely graded grayscale enhances depth and excellent shadow delineation heightens the impact of several scenes while keeping crush at bay. Razor-sharp close-ups showcase Macready's scar (the result of a 1919 car accident that sent the actor hurtling through the windshield of a Ford Model T) Douglas' distinctive chin dimple, the facial hair, blemishes, and wounds on the men's faces, and the tears of weeping soldiers in the tavern at the end of the film. There's a bit of print damage at about the 25-minute mark as two whispering soldiers debate death, but otherwise the source material is practically pristine, with only an errant speck or two dotting the image.
Though I don't own a copy of Criterion's 2011 Blu-ray of Paths of Glory, I can't imagine it could eclipse Kino's spectacular rendering of this Kubrick classic. If you're an admirer of Paths of Glory or a serious film collector, an upgrade is mandatory.
Aside from its spectacular battle sequence, Paths of Glory is a surprisingly quiet film, and this top-notch DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track handles both the bombastic war effects and pregnant pauses with equal aplomb. The piercing whistles, explosive shelling, and rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire contrast with the boots clomping on the wooden planks in the trenches and across the elegant parquet floors of the military headquarters. The audio may only emanate from the front channels, but the battle scenes are so potent they emit a palpable surround feel. The ear-splitting highs remain pure and distortion-free throughout and though the bass frequencies lack the extra subwoofer oomph, the rumbles and thuds are plenty weighty. All the dialogue, even when whispered, is well prioritized and generally easy to comprehend (in the heat of battle, the effects obscure a few phrases, but that only adds to the realism) and excellent fidelity maximizes the impact of Gerald Fried's rousing, drum-heavy score. No age-related hiss, pops, or crackle break the clean silences or disrupt the hypnotic spell of this riveting and disturbing film.
Aside from the film's three-minute original theatrical trailer and previews for Kubrick's two previous productions, Killer's Kiss and The Killing (all three trailers are presented in 4K UHD with Dolby Vision HDR), the only extra is an audio commentary by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas. Lucas covers most of the bases, chronicling the movie's production history, providing cast and crew bios, noting the differences between Cobbs' novel and the screen adaptation, sharing an amusing Adolphe Menjou anecdote, and analyzing Kubrick's style. He also calls Timothy Carey "one of the great screen eccentrics of this period" and relates the incident that led to his firing before shooting wrapped. In addition, he quotes from various Kubrick interviews and discusses the abandoned Casablanca-like alternate ending. If you're a fan of this Kubrick classic, you'll definitely want to give this intelligent track a listen.
Paths of Glory completes the glorious trio of recent KLSC 4K UHD releases of early Stanley Kubrick films, and it's the best of the bunch. The brand new Dolby Vision HDR master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative puts us in the trenches, on the battlefield, and in the thick of the heated confrontations that fuel this impeccably directed, brilliantly acted, and emotionally searing antiwar movie. Excellent audio and an insightful and informative commentary track add luster to this essential edition. Paths of Glory is just as powerful and relevant today as it was 65 years ago and it demands a prominent spot in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.