Friday, November 18, 2005

PATHS OF GLORY – Kubrick’s satiric masterpiece on the futility of war

A big part of what the British Film Institute does is preserve old films. They seek out old reels, restore them and create shiny new prints that can be played again in modern multi-plexes. The latest movie to benefit from this treatment is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, PATHS OF GLORY. The movie is set on the French front-line in World War I and its themes are the dislocation between senior officers and front-line soldiers and the absurdity of fighting against extreme odds when the final objective is unclear. These are themes that still resonate today. Kirk Douglas, most famous as Spartacus, gives the performance of his career as Colonel Dax. Dax is a man of common sense and integrity charged with leading his men in an impossible attack on a German ant-hill. The Generals who have ordered this attack know full-well that the odds of taking the hill are slim but do not care. They are morally corrupt dandies, wearing uniforms rich in brocade - insensible to life outside their chateaux. Dax does as he is told, but when his men retreat he is forced to defend them in a corrupt court-matial.

The movie is a paragon of economy – packing profundity and absurdity into just one hour and fifteen minutes of superbly photographed celluloid. While I also admire rambling epics such as APOCALYPSE NOW and THE THIN RED LINE, it is interesting to see how much better Kubrick does in such a short space of time. Indeed, so searing is Kubrick’s attack on mindless militarism that the movie was banned in France until 1975 on the grounds that it offended France’s military honour. Similarly, the film was banned in Franco’s Spain until his death.

No self-respecting cineaste can avoid seeing this movie. Although it was made before Dr Strangelove, Lolita and The Shining, we already have the famous long tracking shots that made Kubrick famous. For instance, early on, we have a scene where Kubrick follows Dax as he walks through a narrow trench greeting all his men, and we see, close-up, the degradation of war. This shot was aped by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his recent World War One movie, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. It has also influenced the fluid camera movements of film-makers like Scorsese in iconic scenes such as the entrance to the night-club in GOODFELLAS. Despite the limited budget and lack of computer-generated special effects, the battlefield scenes, shot on location oustide Munich, are truly horrific. To my mind, they have only been bettered by Spielberg in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

So, I encourage you to see this movie, whether at the cinema in London, or on DVD. The new print does have a yellow sheen and the sound quality is rather poor, but it is great to see the film as Kubrick intended, rather than on the TV-screen format you get when watching it on DVD.

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