It’s remarked a few times in the supplements for this Criterion edition of “Paths of Glory” that it’s the ultimate anti-war film. While I tend to shy away from calling anything the ultimate whatever (what about another recent Criterion release, “The Thin Red Line,” in this category?), “Paths of Glory” may be unique among anti-war films in its searing portrayal of flawed military logic carried to its tragic end.
Kirk Douglas plays French Colonel Dax, who is tasked by General Mireau with securing an objective known as the Anthill during World War I. Dax is dubious, given the depleted state of his forces, but Mireau plays the patriotism card, inferring that his loyalty to France will be in doubt if he can’t follow orders. Dax can only offer a quote from Samuel Johnson — “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” — before agreeing to lead the charge, lest he be taken away from the men whose lives he feels responsible for. Of course, Mireau has his own reasons for ordering a suicidal attack: the promise of a promotion from his superior, General Broulard.
The subsequent battle goes awry, and three of Dax’s men are chosen, for various reasons, to appear before a kangaroo court for court martial proceedings and execution. Dax, who was a criminal lawyer in civilian life, passionately defends his men, despite the fact that they will almost certainly needlessly die in the name of patriotic honor. Afterward, Dax tears into Broulard with the kind of fury that only an actor like Douglas can summon. It’s a classic “Let’s expose the insanity of this situation” kind of moment, the sort that speaks for all of us when confronted with stupidity large and small.
“Paths of Glory” was previously released as a bare bones DVD from MGM, so it’s nice to see a Criterion release with the kind of supplements we’ve come to expect from the company. There’s no in-depth making-of documentary here, but we are treated to new interviews with producer James B. Harris, Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s longtime executive producer, and Kubrick’s widow, Christiane.
Harris in particular offers some interesting insights, including the various problems they had with actor Timothy Carey, who had to be fired before the film was completed. At that point, Kubrick only had the battle scene left to film, so Harris says they had to shoot it without showing the three characters who would later be court martialed, since it would have been odd to focus on two of them but not the third. (They are introduced before the battle, however, and a double was used for a couple other still-to-be-shot scenes where Carey’s character could face away from the camera.)
Harris says that initially he and Kubrick thought the three’s absence would be a problem, but he figured the anonymous nature of the battle wound up working in favor of the story. I agree: since the three men were chosen in arbitrary ways, there was no point in focusing on them during the battle anyway. Whether they showed bravery or cowardice was irrelevant, since the entire attack failed and they became scapegoats.
This disc also includes a very brief 1966 audio interview with Kubrick and a 30-minute British TV show interview with Douglas from 1979. Neither adds a whole lot to the supplements: Kubrick talks more about his casting his future wife in the film than anything else, and Douglas discusses his entire career to that point, with only a brief mention of working with Kubrick. However, the Douglas interview is interesting if you want to learn more about his poverty-stricken upbringing and how he found his way to Hollywood after a failed stage career.
In addition, this disc features a French TV news piece about the actual World War I executions that led to a lawsuit by the dead soldiers’ families. That event inspired Humphrey Cobb’s novel on which this film is based.
Finally, we have a commentary track from film critic Gary Giddins that’s typical of the commentaries Criterion includes on its DVDs. I often refer to Criterion’s releases as “film studies in a box,” and Giddins’ track falls right in line with that idea. He gives us a thoughtful discussion that not only dissects the story structure, especially in relation to Cobb’s novel, but also puts in context the film’s place in cinema history. Think of it as a film studies lecture.
Of course, no Criterion DVD would be complete without a booklet, and “Paths of Glory” has one of those too. It includes an essay by critic James Naremore, who wrote the book “On Kubrick,” among others.