Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is among the most powerful antiwar films ever made. A fiery Kirk Douglas stars as a World War I French colonel who goes head-to-head with the army’s ruthless top brass when his men are accused of cowardice after being unable to carry out an impossible mission. This haunting, exquisitely photographed dissection of the military machine in all its absurdity and capacity for dehumanization (a theme Kubrick would continue to explore throughout his career) is assembled with its legendary director’s customary precision, from its tense trench warfare sequences to its gripping courtroom climax to its ravaging final scene.
In a welcome surprise, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory receives a wonderful new Blu-ray from Criterion, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz. The original MGM DVD presented the film in 1.33:1 but the widescreen ratio presented here is how it was originally shown, MGM’s DVD presenting the film open matte.
Working from a restoration done by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Criterion’s digital transfer is an absolute stunner. The image presents sharp, crisp details and never seems to waver other than when the source looks to go fuzzy at the edge of the screen in a couple of noticeable spots. The amount of detail present is the most striking thing about this transfer, right from the opening shot to the close-ups of the faces of the soldiers during the closing sequences. Gray levels look superb and blacks are quite inky, with no lost detail.
Grain is visible and gets heavy in a few spots but it’s not distracting and remains natural looking. The source materials show some damage but it’s minimal. In all it’s an absolutely gorgeous looking image, top-notch on all fronts. From the vigorous restoration to the superb digital transfer, this is easily the best I’ve ever seen the film.
The lossless linear PCM mono track is also quite striking. Though some explosions during the battle sequence may sound flat, every other aspect of the track is incredibly lively and active, with fantastic range and volume. It’s quite clean and sharp with no damage or distortion present, also showcasing crisp easy-to-hear dialogue and music (in the couple of places it does.) In the end it’s still just a mono track, but it still manages to be an incredibly clean and rather robust one.
This is a big title for Criterion, one I’d also never thought they would get their hands on (despite having previously released it on laserdisc,) so it is a little disappointing this release does feel so slim when compared to other titles from the company.
The first supplement is an audio commentary by critic Gary Giddens, recorded exclusively for this edition. It’s a scholarly track but a breezy one, Giddens (who I assume is well prepared with notes) plowing through everything, never really missing a beat. He covers the production, gives a background on many of the performers (most interestingly being his background for Timothy Carey, who was ultimately fired from the film,) makes comparisons to the source novel by Humphrey Cobb, even reading a small section from it, and makes comparisons to other works by Kubrick, specifically Dr. Strangelove. He also offers his analysis of Kubrick’s style and technique, and how it first shows up here, and he tries to point out the touches that may have had more to do with Kirk Douglas than Kubrick but he admits it’s hard to know where Douglas had influence exactly since Kubrick was trying out some more Hollywood touches. He also talks about the film as a series of chess matches between characters, with plenty of strategy happening between everybody, even pointing to the parquet floor designs found throughout as evidence of this (I guess I felt this might have been stretching it, but he could be right.) He also likes to make comparisons between Paths of Glory and war films of today, specifically in how they’re edited, and for some reason he singles out Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone as the whipping boy (though he specifically states he’s not trying to make it a “whipping boy.”) Though he can jump around and maybe spends a bit of time talking about what we’re seeing, I liked it, if specifically more for the history of the production and the breakdown of some of the themes found in the film. It’s breezy and quick and he keeps the pace, making it possibly more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
Next up is an older 1966 interview with Stanley Kubrick, recorded with interviewer Jeremy Bernstein. It’s unfortunately only 2-minutes and actually less than that since credits are stuck in here as well. Kubrick briefly covers how they got funding for the film and then how he met his wife, Christiane Kubrick, because of casting for the film. The audio plays over a montage of photos, posters, and even newspaper clippings. I’m guessing there is actually more to this interview so it’s disappointing there isn’t more here, especially since it feels like Kubrick interviews are so rare (I’m hoping they’re saving the material for other Kubrick releases.)
The best feature on here has to be easily the next one, a 1979 interview with Kirk Douglas, recorded for the British television show Parkinson. Douglas is an absolute delight as an interviewee, telling some of the most intriguing and wonderful stories about his family and then his career, sharing some amusing anecdotes about running into fans on the street. He carries the interview, never stopping, talking about any subject, such as the Oscars and his lack of a win, working for the studios, and his own production company, and then covers to a small extent working with Kubrick and on Paths of Glory (very little is said about Spartacus surprisingly.) The relationship between Douglas and Kubrick was apparently rough because they were both passionate and had a vision, so they came to a odds at times, but while that doesn’t come up here you can sense that despite any issues Douglas certainly admires the director and he talks fondly of him here (the booklet that comes with the release also quotes Douglas as having called the director a “talented shit.”) He talks a bit about his latest film at the time, which would be The Villain (and by the sounds of it was certainly more fun to make than it is to watch) and then he manages to even break out in to song. It may be one of the more entertaining interviews I’ve ever seen, with Douglas carrying the piece so effortlessly.
Following this are interviews conducted exclusively for this release. First is a 21-minute interview with producer James B. Harris, who produced films with Kubrick. He covers how they came to work together, talks a bit about The Killing but then gets into the details on how they got Paths of Glory made despite the fact no studio was interested. He addresses a couple of criticisms against the film (like the lack of French accents) and then expands in detail on the issues that arose with actor Timothy Carey (which I must say was fairly bizarre.) There’s also mention of the “happy ending” that was in the script early on, more than likely only to fool a studio into giving them money to make the piece.
Christiane Kubrick next gives a short 7-minute interview, talking about her late husband and how they first met, which was when she was cast as the girl who sings in front of the troops at the end. She covers the song choice and how that occurred, and then closes the segment on how she left acting to stick to painting. Again it’s surprisingly short, but do hope they recorded more for another Kubrick release.
The final interview is a 9-minute piece with longtime producer Jan Harlan. He talks about Kubrick’s work and style as a whole, not just Paths of Glory (which honestly gets very little mention.) Though it has some good information on how he worked with actors, addresses his reputation as a director who just films take after take, and his use of music, it still feels a little slight and rushed.
The one supplement I was most fascinated by when I read the original specs was this next one, called Theophile Maupas, which is a segment from a French program that was covering the actual French execution that the film is based on. Unfortunately it’s only a 3-minute piece, sort of skimming over the material. Still getting some sort of historical context is welcome and I appreciate Criterion tracking this down.
The disc then closes with a 3-minute theatrical trailer that actually gives away a lot.
James Naremore provides an essay in the booklet that accompanies this edition, which is fantastic read, expanding on the material in the commentary, covering a little more about Kubrick’s and Douglas’ work together.
Despite some decent material it felt slim. Still, I enjoyed the commentary and the interview with Douglas, which both offer some great insight into Kubrick and this film.
Overall it’s a stunning release and I’m so thrilled with what Criterion was able to do with this. It looks and sounds wonderful, including one of Criterion’s best looking black and white transfers. Now, bring on The Killing.