At first glance, you might be surprised to note that Paths of Glory is a Kubrick film. At just 90 minutes it’s one of his shortest films, shot and edited with an unfamiliar economy. As Richard Ayoade notes in one of the interviews accompanying this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release, Paths of Glory boasts snappy dialogue where a later film might opt for pregnant pauses, storming ahead where the mature Kubrick might rather linger.
But look closer, and there are Kubrickian trademarks too. For one, there’s the anti-war theme, later echoed and developed in the likes of Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. This time it’s the First World War under scrutiny, as a French court martial tries three soldiers accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy after an offensive gone awry. With a satirical eye, Kubrick skewers the top brass, interested only in rank and reputation at the cost of lives. They’re familiar themes of course, but Paths of Glory tackles them with verve, expertly fusing the tragedy of the war drama with the sense of injustice typical to every good legal drama.
Kirk Douglas is the embattled hero here as Colonel Dax, a former lawyer now trying to clear his men’s names — and save their lives — in the face of a military that sees them as fundamentally expendable. To the generals, the men are worth more dead, as an example to their brothers in arms, than they could ever be back in the trenches.
If the subject matter is classic Kubrick, the film boasts another of the director’s hallmarks: his strong visual flair. That’s most apparent in the film’s biggest set piece, the French assault on the German trenches. With his trademark wide lens, Kubrick pulls back from the action to show soldiers stumbling across No Man’s Land, tumbling as artillery shells rip through the air and thud into the ground, the violence made striking by its sheer, terrible scale.
But there’s something to appreciate even outside the obvious, such as the roving camera during the court martial, lurking behind the accused and holding back from Colonel Dax’s impassioned speech.
Paths of Glory may not be the first Kubrick classic most are likely to think of, but it shows his powers as both satirist and filmmaker coming into their height.
Words by Dominic Preston