Hearing Stanley Kubrick’s voice on the new Criterion edition of his coruscating anti-war melodrama ‘Paths of Glory’ is like listening to a ghost; not because the director has been dead for over a decade, but because he said so little in public when he was alive. It’s one of the characteristic delights of a marvelous disc that provides thoughtful context for a film that was so dangerous to Gallic pride that it couldn’t be seen in France for over twenty years after its first release in 1957. It’s a powerful, painful experience to watch; a story of true horror – on the Front, and in the chateaux occupied by sneering generals playing chess with life while Kirk Douglas tries to save his men from the evil that distorted notions of honor breed.
As is so often the case with Kubrick, the actors aren’t embodying characters, but playing archetypes – you watch Timothy Carey falling apart after being faced with his own death, and realise that he was cast because he acts the way most of us would – his face is crumbling under pressure, his voice a childish moan; it’s like a high school theatre performance. And that’s not a criticism: it’s the strength of ‘Paths of Glory’ that the people in it – with the exception of the generals and Kirk Douglas – feel like you and me.
Kubrick’s philosophy of glory underwrote his entire career: the question of what makes a real man surfaces in narrative arcs as diverse as that of Quilty in ‘Lolita’, Barry Lyndon, Alex Droog, and most transcendently, Dave Bowman in ‘2001’. ‘Paths of Glory’ feels like a template for everything else Kubrick made: men sitting in large rooms and talking, men and violence, men and women, opulent ballrooms, classical music, resistance heroes unable to defeat authoritarianism. Ego and power, and the echo of formalised feet dancing at parties taking place during wars. So the function of ‘Paths of Glory’ is to invite us into an appreciation of the director’s later work, while forcing us to think about the idiocy of relationships between people who aren’t allowed to admit doubt.
Like ‘Seven Samurai’ (below), also released by Criterion this month in a magnificent Blu-ray edition, overflowing with genuinely fascinating special features, ‘Paths of Glory’ confronts the economics of death: men who think they are in control haggling over the lives of others, playing with them ‘for sport’. It’s a short, compact film, which gets under the skin of its star, who in one of the special features – a 1979 BBC interview – reminds us that there was a time when actors were actually expected, and willing, to talk intelligently about themselves. You feel Douglas’ compassion for his men; and his powerless position in the war game. You don’t need to remember much about the absurd context for the First World War to experience despair when a man is executed while on a hospital stretcher. You don’t mind the comedy bad guys because the story is so insane that they seem ironically to fit into its scheme, prefiguring the generals in ‘Dr Strangelove’. And when it ends, with the heartbreaking, national boundaries-transgressing song from Christiane Kubrick, the actor credited here as ‘Susanne Christian’, a young woman whom Stanley met at a masked ball (there’s a Jungian coincidence for you) you wonder if the director didn’t look back on this film as being his finest declaration that the only thing worth fighting for is love. Kubrick got a wife, Kurosawa got a profile in the West; the rest of us got two of the greatest films ever made.