Paths Of Glory

Paths Of Glory (1957)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Kirk Douglas
Extras: Production Notes

The bitter, numbing mindlessness of war and the exploitation of military ranks has been material for a number of films, both good and bad. If there has ever been a film that made it brazenly obvious, tangible for everyone, it has to be late director Stanley Kubrick’s compelling film, "Paths Of Glory". It is a movie that exposes excessive hatch plots within the military ranks during stress situations where coward men try to save their own hides without respect or second-though about others. The cowards in this film are, of course the rank highest staff members of the French army, who rather send thousands of their own foot-soldiers into certain death than admitting their own fears – fears that would be only too human, I suppose. But it seems to take a certain personality to climb the ranks, and courage is oftentimes not one of the supporting virtues. That’s what the common soldier is here for after all. Director Stanley Kubrick cast a harsh glance at this scenario, indicting the military politics. The result is a memorable film that leaves the viewer pondering and that after more than 40 years is just as important a lesson in humanity and social incompetence as it was back then.

Stanley Kubrick explores the whole spectrum of misguided personalities during times of war in his brilliant film. It all starts when the French General Staff decides from the safety of their little chateau far off enemy lines that it is time to attack the "Ant Hill". It is a hilltop held by the German army during World War I, without any strategic value. For the sole purpose of claiming it their own the officers are determined to see it taken by their men. The order is passed down directly to the soldiers in the trenches right in front of the Ant Hill. Lead by the energetic and charismatic Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the men in those trenches are battered, worn, weak and long overdue for some well-deserved rest after countless successful advancements into enemy territory. Despite Dax’s concerns over the men’s morale and fighting power, the order is enforced and the coming morning, these men try to fight their way up the Ant Hill. The attack is a complete failure and results in the pointless loss of many men.

The attack is a suicide mission in the first place, but it turns completely fatal in part due to one commanding officer’s cowardice, who never orders his men to leave the trenches, leaving the first line of soldiers without backup. Frantic over the incident the supervising General even orders his artillery to fire at their own men in the trenches. The order is refused and the aggravated General has only one thing on his mind. To cover up for his blunder, he seeks revenge for the failure by charging the men for mutiny and cowardice in the face of the enemy, while he was comfortably sipping his cognac from a safe distance. Dax has to pull all his registers to rescue three men who are about to be executed exemplarily to satisfy the Generals’ blood thirst. What follows is a travesty to any legal system and defies any respect for human life.

With Kirk Douglas in the lead, "Paths Of Glory" is truly one of the most memorable anti-war films I have ever seen. It is his sanity, his warmth and determination that helps making the unbearable injustice we witness so despicable. In him we see all the virtues of a true hero without glorifying the character in any way. We see the virtues you would think are concentrated within army Generals, but are lost on those men. All we find are corrupt, self-centered marionettes, strung up to play the game of decadence and opportunism at the most inappropriate of all times.

In the rather short but gripping attack sequence, Kubrick manages to show us the carnage and the horror of war in a series of impressive images that set the stage for the events to come. How can anyone who is not standing side-by-side at the front lines with these men have the arrogance to accuse them of cowardice? The question is literally screaming at the viewer and as the story unfolds, all we can hope is that somehow sanity prevails. MGM Home Entertainment has now release "Paths Of Glory" to honor director Stanley Kubrick’s recent passing. The black & white movie is presented in a <$PS,fullscreen> version on the disc, restoring the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. While the transfer is excellent for the most part, there are a handful of scenes in which it shows serious noticeable damage on the sides of the frame. Apart from those deficiencies however, the picture quality is surprisingly good with deep blacks and good highlights. The image never appears flat or lifeless. The compression has been done very carefully and no mentionable artifacting is evident in the presentation.

"Paths Of Glory" contains a monaural soundtrack in <$DD,Dolby Digital>. Unfortunately the soundtrack has not held up as well as the images while the film aged, and serious distortion is noticeable throughout the movie. From the opening moments where fanfares are seriously clipped to dialog sequences where the voices sound harsh and distorted, the quality of the soundtrack is unfortunately rather poor. Add to that the fact that the noise reduction system used to clean up the audio track is clearly cutting off much of the ambient sound effects, and you have film that sounds absolutely unnatural. To make matters worse the noise gate used to limit the audible noise floor is set too high and doesn’t open fast enough and frequently chops off initial pieces of dialog, making it hard to understand many of the spoken lines.

There can be no doubt, this film needs a restoration in order to survive the next 40 years, and I can only hope that the good people at MGM are aware of the gem they are having in their library with "Paths Of Glory". It is a powerful film that should not be forgotten and although this DVD gives us a great chance to witness the movie’s strengths, as well as director Stanley Kubrick’s masterful skills, we can only hope that MGM will find the funds to see this film fully restored one day.

If you want to learn more about film deterioration, preservation and restoration, please visit the website of the "American Film Institute" who is dedicated to preserving films for the future. It also tells you what you can do to support the AFI’s film preservation efforts to make sure films like "Paths Of Glory" will not be lost. It is very valuable information no film enthusiast should miss!