Film review: “Paths of Glory”

It is interesting that the Stanley Kubrick canon has been almost completely co-opted by in-the-know juvenile intellectuals, yet Kubrick’s accessible, defiant and brilliant 1957 World War I film “Paths of Glory” has yet to be truly unearthed by video store clerk monthly recommendations or intrepid high schoolers.

Recently re-released in a brand-new 35-millimeter print (playing now at the Music Box Theatre) in the ongoing discussion of Kubrick’s career since his death in 1999, “Paths of Glory” is a subtler Kubrick, infiltrating the war film genre in a style far more subtle than the abrasive “Full Metal Jacket.”

Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a French commander who is ordered to lead his unit into a suicidal mission during the waning days of WWI. When they are largely decimated, higher-up politicos demand the court-martialing (and subsequent execution) of three members of Dax’s battalion for cowardice.

The recent “A Very Long Engagement” situated its story around Great War cowardice and tried to back it up with realistic, violent depictions of combat. What made it so forgettable was its complete lack of the same political and moral agenda Kubrick expores in “Paths of Glory.” Between the most riveting scenes of trench warfare I’ve ever seen (highlighted by the stylish, subtle tracking shots through the trenches that then move laterally across the battlefield), Kubrick crams in fist-clenching injustice that, in the light of war, is completely believable.

The film is a wonderful exercise in brevity, especially coming from the visually verbose Kubrick. The 90-minute film ends with a rendition of “La Marseillase” that at once references and ridicules “Casablanca.” Where “Saving Private Ryan” exploited confusing domestic issues about the value of family in war, “Paths of Glory” implicates an entire belief system; a world where masculine brouhaha masks true cowardice.

–Kyle Smith