It is the First World War. The French have dug into trenches, 500 miles long, from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland. As the film's intro eloquently states, victories are counted in hundreds of yards gained, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of men. This is the setting of Paths of Glory, certainly and easily one of the greatest war movies of all time.
Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, contains some of the most realistic First World War battle scenes ever put to film. The landscape is a cratered no man's land of mud, wire and bodies. The desperation is captured beautifully. The references to "shell shock" are historically accurate (it was considered to be a mythical condition by the generals of the day.) The only film that comes close for realism is the Australian classic, Galipoli.
Kirk Douglas is Col. Dax, once a lawyer in his old life, now being ordered to take the "Anthill": A fortfied position that the Germans have held for a year. Now the French intend to take it and keep it, but with tired worn out men. Dax doesn't think it can be done, but agrees to it anyway. The alternative for him would have been to be relieved of duty, and Dax won't abandon his men when they need him.
General Mireaux, his ambition for promotion clouding his judgement, has set up an impossible task. The men of course fail, not being able to clear their own wire before being turned back in the face of machine gun fire and shells. A humiliated and embarassed Mireaux orders his artillery to fire on his own men, and when that order is refused he decides to try them for cowardice in the face of enemy. After all, someone must take the blame for failure, and why should it be an officer? Col. Dax returns to his role of a lawyer and defends the three token men chosen to face the charges of cowardice. The ending is as inspirational and tear jerking as they can get.
Paths of Glory paints a picture of the way it was, based loosely on the French practice of executing men for cowardice before they "infect" the rest of the men with that defect. The trenches in the film are perhaps drier than the real trenches but the landscapes look very real indeed. Kubricks style at this point was still that of an observer, which came from his years as a newspaper photographer. He places his lenses where an observer would sit, and you can watch the events unfold like a fly on the wall.
Kirk Douglas is joined by Kubrick regulars Timothy Carey (two Kubrick films to his name), Joe Turkel (three Kubrick films) as well as Adolphe Menjou and a very young Christiane Kubrick.
The film itself is a heartwrenching look at the realities of First World War Europe, and also the human spirit. It attacks our prejudices and practices while reminding us that we are all the same regardless of our station in life. Kubrick seems to have been both fascinated by war while being repulsed by its necessity.
This being such an historically important film, I am glad that it has finally received the Criterion treatment, but why is this only the second Kubrick film to be treated as such? (Spartacus is the other.) The restoration is very well done compared to the original DVD edition. The audio is in mono just as the original film was. I appreciate that nobody tried to tinker with the audio to make it multi-channel. This is the way Kubrick made it. Supplimental features are here including audio commentary, an essay, and a fun interview with Kirk Douglad from the 70's, among numerous others.
This is absolutely nessecary for any fans of real war films and Stanley Kubrick. Hopefully this ushers in a set of brand new Kubrick Criterion editions. I bought two copies, one for me and one for my dad.