Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Paths of Glory (1957)
Studio Line: MGM

Safe in their picturesque chateau behind the front lines, the French General Staff passes down a direct order to Colonel Dax: take the Ant Hill at any cost. A blatant suicide mission, the attack is doomed to failure. Covering up their fatal blunder, the Generals order the arrest of three innocent soldiers, charging them with cowardice and mutiny. Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, rises to the men's defense but soon realizes that, unless he can prove that the Generals were to blame, nothing less than a miracle will save his clients from the firing squad.

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles: English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 32 chapters; Not Rated; 87 min.; $27.95; street date 6/29/99.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; Booklet.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/D/D-

And here's where Stanley Kubrick starts to become Stanley Kubrick! Over the last few months, I've worked my way back through Kubrick's films. It hasn't been purely chronological but has favored his better-known titles; only now am I getting around to the more obscure entries.

Anyway, as I've viewed his films, I've definitely picked up on his tendencies, the most important of which I feel are his objectivity of filmmaking and his rather moralistic bent. As such, most of his movies remain distanced from their subjects and present them matter-of-factly, and the films also focus largely on less-pleasant aspects of human behavior, for which the characters are usually punished to some degree.

Although I haven't witnessed all of his prior work, it looks like 1957's Paths of Glory was the first full-blown example of the Kubrick Zeitgeist. The previous year's "The Killing" followed some of his "tenets" but wasn't a very distinctive piece; there's little that made it appear to be a Kubrick film.

That's not the case with Paths of Glory. From start to finish, it clearly bears the mark of a Kubrick work. Even though the film features some of the least appealing and most amoral characters of any of his pictures, Kubrick never imposes his own judgment on the participants; he clearly feels the audience can draw their own conclusions from the depictions he offers. And while the baddies "get theirs," he doesn't do this in a stereotypical way; the results of the characters' actions seem logical and realistic.

One stylistically unusual move that would later see more use by Kubrick involves the film's almost complete lack of a score. We occasionally hear some rhythmic backing, but for the most part, POG supplies little music, though incidental music appears in scenes such as a dance. It's an effective method because it accentuates the starkness of the situation. It also helps remove any potentially melodramatic appearances.

Although not a perfect film, I'd place POG very high in the Kubrick pantheon. He depicts his subject with a complexity and a broadness that suits the material well and makes the storyline quite gripping. This tale of World War I hypocrisy isn't an easy watch in many ways - it can be brutal and unforgiving - but it serves the needs of the film well. The actors, including star Kirk Douglas, all provide strong work and avoid stereotypical tendencies; they all seem to be largely realistic and compelling characters. Kubrick makes a clear winner with "Paths of Glory", a harsh but fascinating portrait of the way individuals will callously sacrifice others for their own good.

The DVD:

Paths of Glory appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; because the dimensions of the presentation do not require it, the movie has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, POG presents a pretty nice image for such an old film.

Sharpness looks consistently quite good, with only mild softness at times; for the most part, the image seems pretty crisp and detailed. Some evidence of jagged edges appears, but only infrequently. As one would expect of a film from the Fifties, numerous print flaws exist, though the numbers are not tremendously high. Expect to see speckling as the major culprit, with scratches and blotchy spots being the next most problematic faults. I also detected some wobbling of the image at times, usually right after a cut; the frames briefly seem to "jump" at that time. It's not terrible, but it is distracting.

Black levels seem strong, with little evidence of any grayness or fading. Shadow detail usually looks good as well, though some scenes appear somewhat too opaque. While this transfer won't win any prizes, I found it to be quite satisfactory and watchable.

Much less pleasant is the weak monaural soundtrack. POG presents some of the most distorted audio I've yet witnessed. Dialogue consistently sounds shrill and harsh with much too much amplification of the high end; this results in some badly sibilant speech. You know those toys with sound chips built into them? That's kind of how dialogue sounds. Any effects other than the most quiet ones also are badly distorted, with gunfire and explosions seeming extremely flawed. Little music appears in the film, but when it does, it generally sounds crackly and raw. The only saving grace is that I rarely had trouble understanding dialogue. Still, it's a poor soundtrack, even for a film of its age.

As with pretty much all Kubrick films on DVD, few supplements appear. We get a theatrical trailer and a four-page booklet with production notes. Underwhelming? You got that right. But when "major" Kubrick offerings like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange can't muster any better, do you think an obscurity like POG will get them?

Which is a shame in both regards: it's too bad that Paths of Glory provides so few extras, and it's too bad the film remains so obscure. I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating of Kubrick's films. The DVD offers decent picture but almost completely fails in sound and supplements. Because the movie's quite good and affords a look at early Kubrick, you may want to rent it, but the DVD simply is too poor a release to merit purchase.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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