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Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory opens and closes to the sound of a military snare drum. Between those two cues, director-cowriter Stanley Kubrick offers one of the most searing indictments of war and class consciousness ever put on screen. The film was far ahead of its time in its treatment of its subject and was—even with major star Kirk Douglas in the lead role—a box-office failure that took years to find its audience.

In 1916, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) order the taking of an impregnable German position. Although the regiment’s leader, Colonel Dax (Douglas), calls it a suicide mission, the generals insist he see it through. When one company refuses to join the attack, Menjou and Macready blame its failure on them and insist that three of the soldiers be court-martialed for cowardice. Douglas insists on defending them in a court more interested in upholding the military hierarchy than in investigating the failed attack.

Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, discovered Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel while working on The Killing (1956). Initially, they couldn’t find a studio to back them. Then Kirk Douglas signed on to star and co-produce through his Bryna Productions, which convinced United Artists to give them a small budget. By shooting overseas and planning meticulously, Kubrick made the film look more expensive than it was. His battle scenes, composed of multiple tracking shots in the spirit of director Max Ophüls, were hailed as some of the greatest ever, while he used the widescreen image to create a stark contrast between the luxurious quarters of the officers and the narrow trenches in which the soldiers lived. Although highly praised by critics, particularly overseas, Paths of Glory did not fare well financially, partly because it was banned in France, Switzerland, and Spain and on U.S. military bases.

d. Stanley Kubrick, 88 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of MGM and Park Circus LLC