With ‘Paths of Glory’, which is reissued in a new 35mm print, Stanley Kubrick emerged from the closet of the small-scale genre picture that he occupied at the start of his career. It was perhaps inevitable that this should also happen in the context of an Important Statement: a film about the horrors of war, and the perfidy, cynicism and inhumanity of the military establishment. The novel from which it was drawn was apparently based on a real incident in the First World War. The French high command, as a matter of policy and prestige, insists that an attack be mounted against a heavily fortified German position. When the troops retreat under withering fire, the command then insists that three of them be selected by lot, court-martialled for cowardice, and shot as an object lesson.

As a protest film, ‘Paths of Glory’ actually stands up better than most, mainly because Kubrick never relies simply on emotionalism to make his case. He describes the military machinations with a sharpness and a clarity, a sense of intellectual attack worth any amount of pleading on behalf of humanity and justice (though Kirk Douglas, as just such an advocate, brings his own stabbing energy to the role as the soldiers’ defence lawyer). The crosscutting, between scenes of rococo deviousness in high places and the bewildered agony of the three chosen victims, is also done to peculiarly chilling rather than sentimental effect. Again, this is a measure of Kubrick’s control, of the memorable martyrdom of Ralph meeker and Timothy Carey as two of the condemned men, but also of a lingering sense that the film is not reducible to its message.

Kubrick’s structure, his sense of architecture almost, exercises more of a grip than any anti-war argument one might extract from the film. In the vast baroque spaces of the chateau where the military have their HQ, one experiences not just the arbitrariness, the selfishness, even the monstrousness of power, but somehow the essence of power. The true horror is the sense of void, of the self-sufficient universe in which these manipulators of men operate. Consequently, Douglas’s doomed pursuit of justice for the chosen men escalates in significance, from impertinence to his military superiors to a kind of hubris. His arguments, finally, are not laid before any ordinary court of humanity, but a more cosmic, infinitely belittling tribunal.

The local issues of ‘Paths of Glory’ are picked up in later Kubrick subjects, explaining how he so successfully meshed critical and commercial acceptance in the 1960s: the nuclear arms race burlesqued in ‘Dr. Strangelove’; the debate on law and order, social control and individual freedom engaged in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. But the underlying subject of ‘Paths of Glory’, the secret of its staying and gripping power, is the same that animates films like ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘The Shining’, where Kubrick fell out of step with Contemporary Issues. The chateau-fortress of ‘Paths of Glory’ is the first staging area for what was to become the primal Kubrick plot: man at issue with his own instincts and obsessions. In a way, it looks forward to the exploration of that drama both in time (Barry Lyndon as the figure in history’s carpet) and space (Jack Torrance as the caretaker of history’s storehouse).

Richard Combs

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