The expression “two for one” summarises my experience of Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, a work from a cinematic maestro examining the multitude of issues that plagued World War I. Sure, the film is a great history lesson, but it also highlights the origins of Kubrick’s directorial style, and how it has also educated cinema for the last 58 years in a profound way. In the words of Steven Spielberg, “when you look at Paths of Glory, every sequence hammers its points home, but within every sequence, the filmmaking is delicate, subtle and gentle almost.”
Before Kubrick’s idiosyncratic and perfectionist nature was highlighted in his later works, such as The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, the subtlety, perception and imperturbability he applied to his direction is in full bloom. We are constantly reminded how we are observers to the tragedy of events, instanced by the going-over-the-top scenes and arguments between Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax and the pompous generals. The impeccable composition and lighting of the cinematography highlights Kubrick’s undying attention to technicality, and also sheds light on the influence of his background in photography.
However, the sound design of the film is particularly enticing, with the rhythms of machine gun fire and legatos of whistles providing a haunting soundtrack in its own right. When actual music does occur, the symbolism is retained, as shown by the mocking juxtaposition between snare drum ostinatos and marching generals. I’m sure that I’m not alone in my view that Stanley Kubrick is the director to learn from when it comes down to solely technique.
Although the dialogue in Paths of Glory tends to be wearisome and slowly articulated, I should remind myself that the film does depict the prosaic nature of war, and that we are observers of the events, be they snappy or sluggish. The story touches on a wide variety of topics surrounding the Allied war effort, including the persuasive yet delusional behaviour of the generals and the suicidal nature of trench warfare. However, what separates Paths of Glory from other war films is its ability to simultaneously examine law and justice, and therefore bolster its educational power.
Although Paths of Glory is an unconcealed constituent from the Criterion Collection, evidenced by its artistic, symbolic and periodic features, it is nonetheless a multilayered and candid portrait of war that still maintains its relevance and watchability almost six decades from its release. It’s easy to see how both history documentaries and other film directors have tried and failed to replicate the work of the integral film genius known as Stanley Kubrick.
Rating - ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ¾