Kirk Douglas at 100: Paths of Glory (1957 Stanley Kubrick)

Here is the first of a few reviews honouring Kirk Douglas’s achievement in making the century – a nice homage was given to him by Peter Bradshaw on The Guardian.

Of course it is a welcome change to hear of a screen legend from the 40s, 50s and 60s to be still hanging around and celebrating milestones in a year when so many other legends shrugged off their mortal coils way too early.


 Kubrick was in a different zone when he directed this – different in the fact that he was still technically a full-on studio stooge back then. His artistic freedoms flourished more so in the late 60s and beyond after he made 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. But this is not to say that he didn’t direct great movies before then. One of these is Paths of Glory. Adapted from a novel by Humphrey Cobb by the brilliant Jim Thompson along with Calder Willingham and Kubrick, the film casts Kirk Douglas as a WWI French Army Colonel (don’t worry, its spoken in English). After his party is ordered by Douglas’s overlords on a suicidal and win-less mission across the trenches into enemy territory, he is forced to defend his surviving troops in the subsequent court marital (which had a punishment of death back then).

The film is very matter-of-fact for a late 50s US studio film and it deals with the subject matter of war in the most clinical way possible – this, without forcing scenes of violence or combat into your eyeballs. There is so much humanity here and not only is this drawn out in the increasingly bewildered Douglas, who tirelessly instructs his generals to see sense, but in the three soldiers who are on trial too. They each portray a beautiful humility in their own helpless plight. It is is heart-breaking in parts and Douglas provides some of the film’s most powerful moments as he attempts to convince the upper echelons of the men’s innocence with heartfelt monologues. As a viewer, I imagine that many of us would take the Colonel and his men’s side in all of this but in war, as the generals shamelessly claim, there is only one side to take and this is the side of intolerance. I think this is the most powerful anti-war acknowledgment one can have.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

(From Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’)

Rated 5/5 ♦♦♦♦♦

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