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Movie review: 'Paths of Glory'

4 stars (out of 4)

Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," now being reprised in a brand-new print at the Music Box Theatre, is a great anti-war film that has lost none of its power since its release in 1957, when Kubrick was 29 and his legendary career was just beginning.

Set in the trenches of France's Western Front during World War I and based on a true incident that had been novelized by writer Humphrey Cobb, it remains one of the most moving film portrayals of the dirty, brutal and bloody side of war—of relentless death on the battlefields, of official lies, incompetence and conniving and of injustice so pervasive and inescapable that it crushes the weak and renders impotent the good.

"Paths of Glory" is an antidote to false movies about the glories of war, nonsensical fantasies like John Wayne's "The Green Berets" or Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo."

Both stark, dramatic and stunningly visualized, it's also fascinatingly theatrical, shot with a mix of documentary-like realism (the battle scenes) and high, elegant continental style (the scenes in the chateau with the corrupt French generals.) It was a pet project of both Kubrick and star-producer Kirk Douglas, whose portrayal of Col. Dax is one of his most memorable. And it became the film that, for many, marked young Kubrick as the successor to Hollywood's '40s wunderkind Orson Welles, a view shared by Welles himself.

The story is simple, shattering. A vain and ambitious French general, Mireau (played by familiar film noir villain George Macready) is manipulated by his wily superior, Gen. Broulard (suave Adolphe Menjou) into a hopeless attack on an impregnable German position. When the attack inevitably fails, Mireau, hysterical, orders the entire regiment court-martialed and 100 men executed for cowardice. Only with difficulty is he persuaded to settle for three men, as an example.

Those three are picked perversely or randomly. One, brutal Pvt. Ferol (the amazing Timothy Carey) is charged because he is seen as an undesirable social misfit—even though he was a brave soldier. Another, brainy Pvt. Arnaud (Joseph Turkel) is chosen by lot. The third, courageous Capt. Paris (Ralph Meeker) is chosen by his craven superior, Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) because Paris witnessed Roget's drunken cowardice. The attack's heroic commander, Dax, furious because his men are being scapegoated, volunteers as defense attorney for the court-martial, to battle against hopeless odds, closed minds and a system preordained to kill.

"Paths of Glory" is both a terrifying, grim look at battle and an excruciatingly tense courtroom thriller. Together, it's a devastating indictment of war as conducted by opportunists and liars.

"Paths of Glory" was Kubrick's fourth film; he had just finished the great 1956 low-budget heist noir "The Killing," before snagging star Douglas for "Glory." Yet it's incredibly assured, filled with intense performances and striking camerawork. Kubrick was a movie buff who echoed classics like "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels," and directors like Max Ophuls and Ingmar Bergman, in his work here.

He can burn images and speeches into your mind—like the famous cockroach scene, which begins with a jail cell tirade from Paris about the insect remaining alive after they all die, and ends with wolf-eyed Carey's smashing slap and snarl: "Now you got the edge on him!"

Despite its power, idealism and awesome suspense, "Paths of Glory" failed with 1957 audiences, even though that year's Oscar winner was the equally passionate anti-war epic, David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," written from Frenchman Pierre Boulle's novel by two blacklisted and uncredited scenarists, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. (Kubrick had even better writers helping him adapt Cobb: pulp noir expert Jim Thompson and witty novelist Calder Willingham.)

But it's been regarded as a classic ever since. And ever since, audiences have wept at this movie's annihilating last scene—when a beautiful, frightened German girl is forced to sing a ballad to the departing French soldiers. The Jewish-American Kubrick was greatly affected by the scene and actress too; she became his future wife, Suzanne Christian Harlan Kubrick.

"The paths of glory lead but to the grave," reads the poem that inspired "Paths." But though the film's subject is bloody and its viewpoint gloomy, we can still take inspiration from the idealism and cool mastery of Kubrick's undying art.

"Paths of Glory"

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb; photographed by George Krause; edited by Eva Kroll; art direction by Ludwig Reiber; music by Gerald Fried; produced by Kirk Douglas, Kubrick, James B. Harris. A United Artists release of a Harris-Kubrick production; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:26. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for battlefield violence and intense, mature themes.)

Col. Dax - Kirk Douglas
Capt. Paris - Ralph Meeker
Gen. Broulard - Adolphe Menjou
Gen. Mireau - George Macready
Lt. Roget - Wayne Morris
Private Ferol - Timothy Carey
Private Arnaud - Joseph Turkel
German girl singer - Suzanne Christian

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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