Film Review: Path of Glory 4k

‘Naturally men are going to have to be killed…’

World War I was over a hundred years ago, and it often goes under the bizarre grandiose title of The Great War, a cognitive dissonance of words if ever there was. Estimates of up to 40 million troops and civilians died, ‘great’ is an understatement, and a callous misuse of language, ‘Insane’ would be far more appropriate.

The headline quote above is uttered by General Paul Mireau (George Macready) to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) as he passes on orders for the French army to prepare for an attack on German troops embedded on Ant Hill, a mound on the other side of the death strewn underworld and battlefront, that is No Man’s Land.

The speech continues ‘…possibly a lot of them. They’ll absorb bullets and shrapnel, and by doing so make it possible for others to get through…say five percent killed by our own barrage – that’s a very generous allowance. Ten percent more again in No Man’s Land, and twenty percent more again into the wire. That leaves sixty-five percent, and the worst part of the job over. Let’s say another twenty-five percent in actually taking the Ant Hill – we’re still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.’ Entire lives have become abstract percentages, they are mere figures for accounting ledgers, or objects to be indifferently moved across maps, not even with the grace or strategy of chess pawns, but faceless draughts pieces being tossed to the side, to rot in mud trenches.

This was one of the many great (appropriate use) times I watched in absolute awe of Paths of Glory (1957) Stanley Kubrick’s first directorial flex and foundation into the land of film masterpieces, where he contributed for the rest of his career. That awe came in numerous forms, stunning framing (Kubrick’s vision is distinct to say the least), cinematography (Georg Krause), outstanding performances (too many to mention, but in particular Macready and Douglas), and a story (based on the book by Humphrey Cobb) that seems so outlandish, it has to be pure fiction, yet is based on actual happenings within the French military, which in turn, similar events are know to have happened in the British army too.

The odysessy begins in an actual palace, the operational base of the French army. ‘Army’ in this instance meaning the residence of gentrified officers, who held titles through nepotism, social status or privilege by birth. War in reality is only for the poor, and standards have not dropped for those in charge, as they continue to parade around in their finery, surrounded by light, space, beauty, parties and opulence. They resemble, and act like Greek gods on Mount Olympus, and as far as they are concerned, they are gods, laughing at the folly of lesser mortals.

General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) tells General Mireau about the necessity to achieve any success in the ongoing two year long war, which through no apparent research, has been decided is the recapture of Ant Hill the next day. Both men effectively waltz around the palace room as they discuss the merits of this plan, a dance that is frivolous, jaunty, and completely at odds with the faith of the 8,000 troops under Mireau’s command.

Mireau already shows no evidence of ability, integrity nor leadership, which is only solidified when the offering of a promotion and an extra star will be the reward for the operation. It should have been called Operation Mount Pomposity.

To negate all reason and empathy to send countless numbers to their guaranteed deaths is the realm of sociopaths, nurtured on a lifetime of dehumanising others through class, education, indoctrination and the establishment. It is an integral part of military training around the world, where troops are conditioned to view others as subhuman, it makes them easier to kill. It is seen in objectives, actions and comments. just listen to the rhetoric of current Israeli officials talking about Palestinian civilians.

Understandably Colonel Dax is not happy about these orders, on multiple levels, strategic, humanitarian, logic and the fact he was a lawyer before army service, means critical thinking was paramount to his being. Mireau has no such qualities, and only sees the promised shining star he has been offered.

It’s difficult to watch such happenings from the year 2024, as it deifies all logic, but as I’ve mentioned, look at what’s happening around the world today, has anything really changed?

Regardless of the pure insanity of the mission, orders must be followed. Pure Catch 22, you either follow them and die, or don’t and you will be court-martialled and shot. What unfolds not only shows the utter madness of conflict, but the derangement of those who create and steer it. War is madness, because ‘leaders’ are lunatics. As Kubrick would later say ‘Be suspicious of people who have, or crave, power. Never, ever go near power. Don’t become friends with anyone who has real power. It’s dangerous.’ Mireau will have his star, at any cost, to anyone.

Paths of Glory has been around for many years, and rightly is recognised as one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made. There are countless stunning scenes, set-ups, sequences, lines, conversations and moments where you want to scream in despair at the screen, or clap at the craft of film making. What happens is horrific, and it’s not even the ‘enemy’ who is inflicting this horror. I’ll not go into details of what unfolds, as if you have not seen it, I want you to feel the full impact and power of it all. Suffice to say, the concept of traditions, ceremony and class, are devices of our demise, they are solely use to control and sacrifice us all, for the whims of the establishment.

As mentioned, it’s a stunning film, all the more so in the form of this beautiful new 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray version from The Masters of Cinema Series. Available for the first time in the UK, it’s the definitive way to see it, unless of course a cinema screening happens at some stage. The quality of image might very well be better than when it was released.

The film alone is prize enough, but there are extra commentaries, interviews and collector’s booklet that expand the making of and story behind it all. It’s been said that there are no real winners in war, and that is true. There are winners in artistic endeavours, and this is absolutely one of the best.  

10/10

Paths of Glory is out now through The Masters of Cinema Series, and is available to order at https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/paths-of-glory-4k-ultra-hd/

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.