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PATHS OF GLORY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready 
Director:  Stanley Kubrick 
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Standard 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 2010

"I apologize... for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man.  And you can go to HELL before I apologize to you NOW, or EVER AGAIN!"

Film ****

I can sum it up very easily:  Were you blown away by Saving Private Ryan?  Then you need to see Stanley Kubrick's wartime masterpiece, Paths of Glory.

As much as I loved Ryan, I still consider this to be the greatest and most emotionally powerful war story ever filmed.  The battle scenes are some of the most gut wrenchingly realistic you'll ever see.  They're loud, powerful, and filled with the sickening and frightening images of war.  And the story behind the battle peels back the covers on the ugliness of wartime politics as well.

It takes place in the middle of the first World War.  France and Germany have been fighting a grueling, unsuccessful battle in the trenches for a couple of years.  A general (Macready) seeking advancement, orders a suicide mission for the 701st regiment.  They are to attack and hold a strategic military position known as the anthill.  Colonel Dax (Douglas) knows that more than half of his men will die, and the chance of success is slim to none, but he carries out orders and leads the attack.  When it fails miserably, the general decides to make an example of his ‘cowardly' men by having three men stand trial in a court martial, and then be executed by firing squad.

Dax defends his men, knowing full well that it's a matter of the politics of war being prized over the lives of three soldiers, but it is a losing battle.  The deck is stacked against him.  The trial is a loosely played out formality, the decision has already been made.

I don't want to say more about the plot, except that Kubrick, in one of his greatest films, achieves a great emotional depth and resonance within the horrors and insanity of war and the pencil-pushing generals who run it.  The film's masterful climax is suspenseful and riveting, and rings with a true power most films never achieve.

The movie is solidly written and acted (particularly Douglas, in one of his greatest roles), but it is Kubrick's sense of direction and pacing that gives this film it's potency.  It's easy for the audience to identify with the feeling of being pawns in the games of the powers that be, though I doubt many of our situations have been as extreme as this.  This is not a movie to be missed.

BONUS TRIVIA I: When Stanley Kubrick passed away, Steven Spielberg invited some friends over to dinner, and as tribute to his mentor and friend, he played the final scene from this movie.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  It's well-known, but worth mentioning that the German girl in the last scene became Mrs. Christiane Kubrick soon after filming.

Video ***

This Blu-ray actually marks the first time I've seen this movie presented in a widescreen format, 1.66:1 with only very slight black bars on the left and right.  The framing is much better, especially in the failed attack on the anthill.  Overall, a good black and white transfer with some limitations owing to the fact that this actually is a somewhat low budgeted movie.  You can see grain and occasional fluctuations in the film stock, but those can't be helped.  The contrast is good, and save for one scene in Dax's trench quarters which seemed a touch hazy, very clear and well detailed.

Audio **

I never really noticed before, but there are places in the movie where the dialogue is a little weak...scenes that take place in big rooms where the mics aren't well-placed making the spoken words sound far away and sometimes a bit hard to comprehend.  That being said, this uncompressed mono track still delivers a surprising amount of dynamic range in the battle sequence and thanks to the music...the ominous drums of the execution march will be hard to shake from your head once they cease into silence.

Features ****

Criterion has delivered an extras package worthy of the great Kubrick, starting with a new commentary with critic Gary Giddins discussing the film and its history.  There is short audio excerpt from a 1966 interview with Kubrick, when he was probably working on 2001 as well as a 1979 TV interview with Douglas himself. 

There are brand new video interviews with Kubrick collaborators Jan Harlan and James B. Harris, as well as Christiane Kubrick.  There is even a French television piece about a real military execution that took place in World War I that partly inspired this film.  Rounding out is a trailer and a new booklet featuring an essay by film scholar James Naremore.

Summary:

Paths of Glory is, in my opinion, the greatest war film ever made.  Powerful, emotional, and boldly unflinching, it towers above all other entries in the genre with a strong storyline and amazing clarity of vision.  It is safe to assume there would have never been a Saving Private Ryan without this movie as a predecessor.  Of all the great, classic, and sometimes undeservedly overlooked gems out there, Criterion deserves a special salute for bringing this masterpiece to Blu-ray.

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