Probably my second favorite Stanley Kubrick film (after Dr. Strangelove of course), Paths of Glory is a riveting drama that raises some disturbing questions about the nature of war and the men who wage it. In World War I France, a general is asked to send his men on a clearly impossible mission to take a fortified German position, and he declines, until he is offered high military honors if he should succeed. Blinded by his own ambition, he orders the upstanding, compassionate Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead his troops into battle, fully expecting greater than 50% casualties.
The attack is a colossal failure, and when the general begins searching for scapegoats, Dax--a lawyer in civilian life--defends the three men all being unfairly court martialed on charges of cowardice. The trial is a frustrating farce, and all of the proceedings both on the battlefield and off serve to reveal the ego, the incompetence, the true weakness of character and the outright ass-kissing rampant within the upper echelon of the armed forces.
At less than 90 minutes, this is one of the shortest feature films of Kubrick's entire career, but that atypically dense structure gives Paths of Glory all the more impact.
This extensively restored edition of Paths of Glory utilizes slight pillarboxing (black bars left and right) to achieve the original 5:3 (1.66:1) aspect ratio. I noted a very faint film grain and I would guess that it has been deliberately reduced for the high-def debut. There's video noise in the shadows and out-of-focus areas of the frame, and modest compression in instances of smoke, but with only a few exceptions I found the image here to be remarkably clean, free of dirt, scratches and other analog impurities. And although it's slightly soft, which is to be expected, I found plenty of natural detail.
The audio too has been restored for this release, although the resulting Linear PCM mono track has no real "wow" factor. It's mostly across the middle, no real highs or lows, although the mix does an admirable job layering in the various sounds of battle. But as was the style of the era (1957), it all emanates from a single speaker, a far cry from modern depictions of warfare in cinema. Dialogue thankfully is always legible.
The director and star are featured in archived interviews, Kubrick's a two-minute audio clip with photos, circa 1966, Douglas on a British TV show from 1979 (29 minutes). Also included is a three-minute excerpt from a 1997 French news program about Corporal Théophile Maupas whose tragic story partly inspired this film.
New for this disc is the audio commentary by film critic and author Gary Giddins, who brings a variety of insights to the on-screen action and behind-the-scenes tales. New interviews have also been conducted with producer James B. Harris (21 minutes), frequent collaborator Jan Harlan (nine minutes), and actress/artist (and Stanley's eventual wife) Christiane Kubrick (seven minutes). All of the video extras are in some form or another of high definition.
This is a solid edition of a tightly budgeted gem more than half a century old, surprising in its video quality and pleasing in its variety of new and old supplementary material. I can heartily recommend this all-time-great war drama on Blu-ray.
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