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War on War

By Drew Morton | | November 5, 2010 |

By Drew Morton | | November 5, 2010 |

First off, a word of welcome: this is the first entry in Pajiba’s DVD Review section, a new section for which I was recently named editor by our esteemed editor and chief, Dustin Rowles. After nearly a decade of writing about film on the web, it feels like a homecoming to be doing DVD reviews once again (I cut my teeth on them initially and, over the years, I’ve learned a hell of a lot about the craft—-those early reviews are embarrassing in retrospect). In any case, the purpose of this section serves two functions. In some cases, as in this review, we’ll (yes, we, there will be a special guest writer who is joining the ranks) be reviewing movies with a fresh perspective while paying particular attention to AV quality and supplemental features. In other cases, when a film has already been reviewed for the site, we’ll simply be focusing on the latter characteristics for the sake of continuity.

A few other disclaimers. Now, there are a lot of DVD and Blu-Ray releases on a week to week basis, and we’re probably only going to get to few on a monthly basis. Don’t be discouraged initially. On the technological side of things, I am using a Plasma HDTV, Playstation 3 Blu-Ray player, and a 5.1 home theater in a box. To some technophiles, the set up makes all the difference and since I’m reviewing some Blu-Ray titles, my home viewing experiences may be slightly different than your own. I encourage you to discuss such differences in the comment sections, if you’re feeling gearheadish. Now, without further ado, welcome to our first review.

Paths of Glory: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray]

The Film
Paths of Glory (1957) is Stanley Kubrick’s second war film, after his debut Fear and Desire (1953) which the director subsequently disowned. His forth feature, Paths of Glory is often considered Kubrick’s first masterpiece, one of the greatest anti-war films ever made (although some scholars and critics have argued if it can be classified as such). It nurtures the seeds of the themes he would further explore in Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), chiefly the dehumanization of the soldier at the hands of the military. The film begins in the midst of the trench warfare of World War I. French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) advises his subordinate officer General Mireau (George Macready) that he will be tasked with the take over of a German-held position known as the “Anthill.” It is a small, relatively insignificant target which will result in the death of many men and Mireau advises against it. When Broulard mentions the possibility that Mireau will be promoted, he accepts the mission and assigns Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to take the target.

Dax, like Mireau, realizes that the task at hand is an impossible one but is forced to obey orders. When the attack commences, it is a disaster. Many men are killed, which results in the other half of the men not leaving the trenches. When Mireau looks upon the action, he becomes furious and requests that the French artillery begins firing at its own men. When his request is denied and the mission becomes a complete SNAFU, Mireau demands that three men be tried for insubordination with death being the penalty. Broulard and Dax reluctantly agree, on the grounds that Dax can serve as the chosen men’s defensive council.

When the three men (Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, and Joseph Turkel) are tried and convicted, Dax is destroyed and yet unable to get his men off the hook. These are men who have demonstrated bravery in the past and, when faced with an absurd suicide mission, reacted in a rational fashion by not leaving the trenches. Yet, as in the case in Kubrick’s view of the military, rational thinking means relatively little and the absurdity of the situation is capitalized upon. Like Strangelove, death is not described by the military as being tied to an individual, but to a number, a percentage. The three men chosen were not more cowardly than their colleagues. They were chosen either at random or due to clashes with other superior officers, making their trial feel farcical.

While Kubrick criticizes the military (especially the French, who banned the film for a number of years), he humanizes the condemned men. We watch as Meeker’s soldier tries to shift his world-view to accept God, as Carey’s socially inept soldier crumbles on the long walk to the firing squad, and as Turkel’s pessimist reacts to the both of them. As Meeker states in one scene, while looking down at a cockroach, “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.” Kubrick personalizes the deaths, which turns them into something more than a statistic. It is a heartbreaking, frightening film and one of the best of Kubrick’s career.

The one criticism I found upon re-watching Paths of Glory after many years is the spectrum of acting styles on display here. Meeker, Turkel, Carey, and especially, Douglas, play the French soldiers as being profoundly American. There is no hint of accent in their delivery and their performances seem naturalistic. On the other hand, George Macready gives his lines a relish and the hint of a European accent. I’m not sure how I feel about Kubrick’s choice here. On one hand, the clash is distracting, particularly in the scenes he shares with Douglas. On the other hand, perhaps the point is that Macready’s character is out of touch with this world and the performance is a way of making that literal.

The AV Quality
I’m normally on the fence when it comes to upgrading my previously owned titles. Last week was a bit tempting, considering the release of the Alien, Back to the Future, and Apocalypse Now sets on Blu-Ray. I skipped the others and went for Paths of Glory, mainly because the previous MGM disc was a $10 title and made for a low-cost upgrade and because Criterion really knows how give consumers a great home theater experience. The Criterion Blu-Ray features a new transfer supervised by Kubrick’s assistant, Leon Vitali, which features the film’s original aspect ratio (1.66:1 compared with MGM’s DVD treatment of 1.33:1). For a fifty year old, black and white, widescreen film, Criterion has found a way to balance the grains and contrasts of the film going experience with the clarity of Blu-Ray technology. The audio track (uncompressed mono) may not be home theater demo quality, but the different dynamics of the war sequences and the court room scenes hold up well.

The Supplemental Features
Criterion, a DVD company known for its extensive supplemental packages (a three-disc collection for Brazil!) disappointed me a bit with the features on Paths of Glory. First off, we’re given a commentary track with critic Gary Giddins. Giddins is far from a poor scholar, but given James Naremore’s extensive work on Kubrick (he supples an essay for the package) and his stellar DVD commentary track record (contributing to both Criterion’s Mr. Arkadin and Universal’s Touch of Evil, I found Giddins a less than ideal choice. The bulk of the other supplemental features are video interviews ranging from a 1979 television interview with Kirk Douglas (who briefly discusses the film in the context of his career), a new interview with Kubrick collaborators James B. Harris, Christiane Kubrick, and Jan Harlan, and an excerpt from a radio interview with Kubrick himself. I’m not sure how much interview material of Kubrick is still around, but the radio interview excerpt is terribly brief (slightly over 2 minutes) and had me wishing for more. Perhaps re-prints from the Stanley Kubrick Interviews book? The Paths of Glory segment from Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)? Criterion’s treatment is far from terrible and my criticisms may seem unfair and idealistic, but after Warner Brothers stepped up to the challenge with their remastered Kubrick set in 2008, I was expecting the bar to be raised. Instead, it stays at the same moderately-high level of quality.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.