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Saturday Night Cinema: Paths of Glory

5

Tonight's Saturday Night Cinema is a masterpiece. Stanley Kubrik set a new, impossible standard with this film, a remarkable piece of work, and not surprisingly, Kirk Douglas gives the performance of a career.

"Paths of Glory" was the film by which Stanley Kubrick entered the ranks of great directors, never to leave them. When I interviewed Kirk Douglas in 1969, he recalled it as the summit of his acting career: "There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now." It has an economy of expression that is almost brutal; it is one of the few narrative films in which you sense the anger in the telling. Samuel Fuller, who fought all the way through World War II, remembered it in "The Big Red One" with nostalgia for the camaraderie of his outfit. There is no nostalgia in "Paths of Glory." Only nightmare. (Roger Ebert)

Kubrick is quoted in Norman Kagan’s 1972 book The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick as saying that war is “one of the few remaining situations where men . . . speak up for what they believe to be their principles.”

NY Mag: Paths of Glory is all about that greatest of all movie subjects: power. Menjou’s General Broulard and his even more arrogant cohort, General Mireau (the sneering George Macready), occupy impossibly ornate palaces as command headquarters—to them, soldiers are like the grains of salt they spill on silk tablecloths. They think the anguish expressed by Douglas’s Colonel Dax isn’t genuine, that he seeks a promotion (i.e., more power) rather than a reversal of their absurdly maleficent execution order. (They are, of course, wrong: Douglas’s famous clenched jaw, expressing enraged frustration, was never put to better use.)

Kubrick’s perfectionism was legendary—he reportedly shot 68 different takes of the accused soldiers’ last meal in Paths of Glory, forcing the on-set chef to cook up order after order of roast duck. Jack Nicholson would later jest, “Just because you’re a perfectionist doesn’t mean you’re perfect.”

NY Times (1957):

this is a story—based on an actual occurrence, by the way—that reflects not alone on France's honor but also on the whole concept of military authority. Yet Mr. Douglas has made a movie of it—an unembroidered, documentary-like account—with himself playing the role of an outraged colonel who tries vainly to intercede. It opened at the Victoria yesterday.

To a certain extent, this forthright picture has the impact of hard reality, mainly because its frank avowal of agonizing, uncompensated injustice is pursued to the bitter, tragic end. The inevitability of a fatal foul-up is presented right at the start, when an ambitious general agrees to throw one of his regiments into an attack that he knows has little chance to succeed. And it looms with ever mounting horror as he orders an example to be made of three men picked at random from the thwarted attackers and dogs them unmercifully to their doom.

All this is shown with shattering candor in this film, which was shot in Germany and was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who also helped to write the screenplay with Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham. The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick's sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die.

Mr. Kubrick has made it look terrific. The execution scene is one of the most craftily directed and emotionally lacerating that we have ever seen.

But there are two troubling flaws in this picture, one in the realm of technique and the other in the realm of significance, which determine its larger, lasting worth.

We feel that Mr. Kubrick—and Mr. Douglas—have made a damaging mistake in playing it in colloquial English, with American accents and attitudes, while studiously making it look as much as possible like a document of the French Army in World War I. The illusion of reality is blown completely whenever anybody talks.

Mr. Douglas exudes tremendous passion as the colonel who tries to stave off a sacrifice, but he speaks with the same kind of English that he used in Gunfight at the O. K. Corral. Adolphe Menjou is a bit more clipped and Gallic as a staff general who plays sly politics, but George Macready acts and speaks the vengeful general as if he were a slimy Harvard man. Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey play the doomed poilus (remember that fine word?) with the swagger, slouches, and speech slurs of assorted G.I.'s in World War II. Emile Meyer is perhaps least effective (when he speaks) in the role of a French priest.

As for the picture's significance, it comes to an inconclusive point. Its demonstration of injustice is like an exhibit in a bottle in a medical museum. It is grotesque, appalling, nauseating—but so framed and isolated that, when you come away, you are left with the feeling that you have been witness to nothing more than a horribly freakish incident.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Mr. Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb; cinematographer, Georg Krause; edited by Eva Kroll; music by Gerald Fried; art designer, Ludwig Reiber; produced by James B. Harris; released by United Artists. Black and white. Running time: 86 minutes.

With: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Corporal Paris), Adolphe Menjou (General Broulard), George Macready (General Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lieutenant Roget), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joseph Turkel (Private Arnaud), Timothy Carey (Private Ferol), and Peter Capell (Colonel Judge).

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