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Generals and majors
The 1957 PATHS OF GLORY remains one of director Stanley Kubrick’s finest achievements and one of the most powerful anti-war movies in the medium’s history. It’s still available on Blu-ray from Eureka, so is the label’s new, identically featured UHD upgrade worth a buy? Slarek walks the trenches to find out.

Note: This new Eureka! Masters of Cinema UHD release of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is effectively a 4K upgrade of the same label’s 2016 Blu-ray and includes the exact same special features. In the spirit of this, as I covered that release in some detail back in 2016, as my views about the film have not changed in the intervening years, what is effectively an update of that review. Once again I should note that there are some serious spoilers ahead, so if by some chance you’ve never seen this remarkable film, I’d watch it before reading the below, or at the very least proceed with caution. For newcomers willing to take the dive here anyway, the major spoilers are consigned to the tail end of the review and are immediately preceded by a second warning, making it easier to bypass them if you prefer.



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.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray


You don't have to be a card-carrying pacifist to have a dim view of the handling of some of the military campaigns during what came to be known as the First World War. One of the things for which this particular conflict became famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – was the appalling number of deaths and casualties that resulted from soldiers being ordered to walk into lethal enemy fire by military commanders who were comfortably distanced from the front line. Then there are those who were executed by their own side for acts of cowardice or desertion, which amounted to 346 men in British ranks alone, although a further 2,734 death sentences were handed out but thankfully not seen through to their ultimate conclusion. Many of those so charged are now believed to have been suffering from what was initially named shellshock and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was poorly understood and even rejected by the military authorities of the day. And Britain wasn't alone on this score or even the worst offender. During the course of the very same war, it is estimated that at least 600 and possibly as a many as 900-plus French soldiers were executed by firing squad for matters related to 'disobedience'. The majority of these men are believed to have been killed not as punishment for their actions, but to set an example to their fellow soldiers.

Unlike a number of other Stanley Kubrick films – 2001: A Space OdysseyA Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon among them – I can't remember when I first saw Paths of Glory, but I do vividly recall the impact that it had. It was a film that my closest friend and I had a unified enthusiasm for during our college years, and from which we would freely quote, emulating the manner in which the actors in question had delivered their lines. I do, however, clearly recall a viewing many years ago that serves as a neat illustration of the film's emotional clout and the sense of outrage it is still able to provoke. That year, my family had come to my house for Christmas dinner, and as they did every year, they had invited a friend of theirs to join us to ensure that he wouldn't have to spend the day alone. He was actually a regular attendee at the film society I co-ran back then, and although we often chatted after the screenings, our tastes widely differed and we rarely seemed to agree on what constituted a great film. As my parents departed that day, Paths of Glory began screening on TV, and our guest asked if he could stay on and watch it with me, in spite of the fact that he didn't have much time for Stanley Kubrick films (see what I mean?). Although not keen to have one of my favourite films blighted by a string of derogatory comments from someone whose views I did not share, I agreed to let him stay. To my surprise and relief, he sat quietly and attentively for the first half of the film, but when the politics of power really kicked in, that quickly changed. "Bastard!" he spat as another cruel twist saw good men fall victim to the egotism and ambition of those in positions of authority. The more the innocent suffered, the angrier he became. He was no longer watching a film set in the First World War, he was witnessing and responding to acts of terrible injustice that tragically have their ignoble roots in actual events.

Dax demands to know why his men have not left the trenches

We're in France at the height of the First World War, and the order comes through from High Command for a heavily fortified German entrenchment known as the Ant Hill to be taken, despite the repeated failure of previous efforts to do so. Major General Georges Broulard offers the job to his subordinate Brigadier General Paul Mireau, who protests that his division has been severely depleted, that his men are exhausted, and that taking the Ant Hill is an impossible task. But when Broulard dangles the prospect of significant career advancement before him and drops hints that this may rely on the success of this operation, Mireau has a change of heart and becomes convinced that the task is within the grasp of his troops. When the attack is launched, led by the battle-hardened Colonel Dax, the sheer intensity of the enemy firepower quickly brings it to a halt and even prevents one company from leaving the trenches. Outraged by what he regards as a cowardly betrayal, Mireau sets a general court martial in motion, but following intervention from Dax and Broulard, he agrees instead to have one randomly chosen soldier from each of the three companies in the first wave symbolically tried under penalty of death for cowardice.

Such a summary covers the essentials of the film's first half but gives no flavour of what makes it so utterly riveting as drama and so astonishing as cinema. That this is not going to play to genre expectations becomes clear early on as cinematographer George Krause's camera glides smoothly with Mireau as he walks through the trenches in a manner that would become a signature feature of Kubrick films. Later, this same technique is used to far more unsettling effect, now moving through the same trenches with Dax as he readies himself to lead the charge, an expression of grim determination on his face, the camera intermittently switching to his viewpoint as walks. As shells explode around him and soldiers duck down nervously, all too aware that their next minute may be their last, my stomach knots up every time as I am forced to contemplate just how I would react or even cope in such a situation. I can't think of many scenes that communicate the terror and danger of being under fire as vividly as this one. This sequence also sits in powerful contrast to our earlier visit to this same trench, where the camera walks instead with General Mireau and his kiss-ass of an adjunct, Major Saint-Auban, as they inspect the troops, a tour that Mireau intermittently pauses to ask the same supposedly morale-boosting question: "Hello there soldier, ready to kill more Germans?" When the third one he questions man initially fails to respond and then breaks down at the prospect of never seeing his wife again, Mireau is incensed, slapping the man's face, dismissing the very idea of the shellshock from which he is clearly suffering, and demanding that "this baby" be immediately transferred out of his regiment. "I won't have other brave men contaminated by him!" he pompously barks. Unknowingly, this order may well have saved the man's life.

A furious Mireau orders the artilery devision to fire on their comrades

Even before we make our first visit to the trenches, the film intrigues in the political machinations and ambition that, in the space of a few fateful minutes, transform Mireau from a commander who shows genuine concern for the welfare of his men into one who sees and hungrily grasps a proffered bribe of personal advancement and military glory. Despite being entirely dialogue driven, the scene grips from its opening seconds, in part due to an excellent screenplay by Jim Thompson, Calder Williams and Kubrick himself that imbues almost every line of dialogue with narrative purpose and secondary meaning. It’s something the performers respond to with arresting aplomb. Kubrick hits the ground running here in the casting of veteran screen actors Adolph Menjou as Broulard and George Macready as Mireau. Both are at the absolute top of their game here, Menjou in his amiable air of confident superiority, Macready in his arrogance and sense of self-importance. Indeed, it's Macready's delivery that makes so many of his lines quotable by imitation, peaking in his furious proclamation following his order that a general court martial be convened. "If those little sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll face French ones!" he barks, the angry rise in the pitch of his delivery visually accentuated by the rapid camera movement into facial closeup. Seen in insolation, this line has a theatricality to it that may seem artificial, yet it feels absolutely right for a self-important man not used to having his words or actions questioned, and who takes the failure of the assault as a personal affront.

Playing his own game of lethal personal politics with the situation is Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), who finds what courage he is able to muster at the bottom of a bottle and whose panicky behaviour on a night-time sortie results in the death of one of his own men. Later, when ordered to select a man from his company to stand trial for cowardice, he picks Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), the only witness to his actions that night and who – a touch ironically – kept his nerve when Roget was running out on his. As we move down the ranks to the three soldiers selected to be tried for a crime that none of them committed, the layers of injustice just keep piling up. It becomes abundantly clear that all three men are undeserving of even a verbal reprimand for actions during an assault that was doomed to fail from the start: Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is not the sharpest stick in the bundle, and was selected by his Captain because he was deemed to be "a social undesirable"; Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel – barman Lloyd in The Shining and Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner) was randomly chosen through the drawing of lots, and has been twice citated for bravery on previous occasions; and Corporal Paris was knocked unconscious before he was even able to leave the trench. It was only on something like my third viewing that I realised that two of the men that Mireau stops to question on his tour of the trenches are Ferol and Paris, while Arnaud is standing almost next to the shell-shocked soldier who so disgusts the General.

If you ignored the spoiler warning at the top of this review and have made it to this point, this is your last chance to bail out and go watch the film instead. There are spoilers aplenty ahead, including discussion about the film's final scene. If you've seen it you'll doubtless understand why. If you wish to continue but sidestep the spoilers, hop forward to the penultimate paragraph of the main review, or click here to do so automatically.

Dax explains the politics of the situation to the prisoners

From the moment the assault begins to show clear signs of failing, it's Mireau's pomposity and refusal to find fault with his own decision that propels the story forward and seals the fate of the soldiers selected to stand trial. Pushed by the more politically savvy Broulard to compromise his initial demand that a hundred men be shot as an example, he takes very personal offence when Dax – a celebrated criminal lawyer in civilian life – asks that he be appointed as council for the accused men, a request that is cheerfully granted by Broulard. In a civilised society, Mireau's own words and behaviour would be his own undoing (though in the present corrupt and amoral political climate, who knows?), but in the rarefied world of the military high command, he is not only given all the latitude he needs, but his position is supported by court officials who seem almost put out that they should have to waste their valuable time on such an obviously open-and-shut case. Seemingly to wind up the audience further, the case is prosecuted by Mireau's self-satisfied adjunct, Saint-Auban, who relishes the opportunity to perform for his General, and even flashes knowing looks and smug smiles at the court officials as he makes his case. Rarely have I wanted to punch a film character more than I did Saint-Auban during this scene – full marks here to actor Richard Anderson (later to find fame as Steve Austin's boss in The Six Million Dollar Man), who infuriates without overplaying his hand. His later discomfort at the result of his courtroom performance provides only a small flavour of the emotional slap he really deserves.

Despite being selected as symbolic representatives of the entire attack force, each of the accused is required to explain specifically why they as individuals failed to reach the enemy lines. Yet from the start they appear to have been judged guilty by default, and every argument that Dax even attempts to put forward is countermanded by a series of infuriatingly restrictive dismissals. In complete contrast to Mireau, Dax is a model of integrity and military professionalism, and once again is cast to absolute perfection. Indeed, I would rate this as one of Kirk Douglas's very finest performances, right up there with portrayal the ruthlessly opportunistic reoprter Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) and the tile role in the 1960 Spartacus, which was also directed by Stanley Kubrick, of course. Rarely has his gritted-teeth anger been put to more effective use, and in common with Macready, his delivery makes every line of dialogue register on more than one level, as diplomacy shapes his words but his true feelings always come through in his inflection and facial expression. My absolute favourite example comes when he assigns Roget the job of heading up the firing squad, fully aware of the man’s true motivation for selecting Paris. After listening to the Lieutenant's nervously bumbled request that he be excused this duty, Dax growls with a barely supressed blend of anger and contempt, "Request denied," cutting short a further protest with, "You've got the job. It's all yours." It may not read like much, but you should hear how Douglas delivers those words. For some years, my aforementioned friend and I would gleefully imitate this line and its delivery every time one of us foolishly asked a favour of the other.

In spite of the precise manner in which it is filmed, the decision to shoot on location in actual chateaux and specially dug trenches in German farmland lends the proceedings a disconcerting air of realism, one enhanced by the decision to shoot the film in black-and-white, echoing the monochrome documentary and newsreel filter through which most of us had learned about both world wars. Having set the tone in the aforementioned trench walks, Kubrick ups the ante further once the assault begins, dollying his camera alongside Dax as he leads his men into no man's land while shells rain down around him and soldiers fall victim to enemy fire on every side. It's as vivid a picture of war as hell on earth as you'll find in a film until Elem Klimov's Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) came along and left us gasping for air.

Paris leads the walk as Ferol seeks comfort from the chaplain

Nowhere does Kubrick's intermittent switch to a subjective viewpoint register more grimly than in the climactic scene, where the three condemned men are walked ceremoniously towards their place of execution, while officers, soldiers and press watch on from both sides and military drums mark their final heartbeats. It’s a sequence that hits me in the pit of my stomach every time I watch it, and those too-often levelled charges that Kubrick was a technically brilliant but emotionally detached director have absolutely no place here. His aim was clearly not to observe the final minutes of the three condemned men but to force us to share them, to see their impending deaths through their eyes and experience just a whiff of their existential terror, as a subjective dolly shot pulls the posts to which they are be tied inexorably towards them like a trio of monolithic Angels of Death. Adding a further layer of outrage to this lethal farce is the fact that the unconscious Arnaud, who has sustained a serious head injury during a brawl with Paris, is propped up against his pole in the stretcher in which he has been transported, then woken so that he will be at least partially aware that he is about to be shot. Mireau's later gloat that "the men died wonderfully" adds a final insult, while the small victory handed to Dax by Broulard rings hollow because the General has completely misinterpreted Dax's intentions. "You really did want to save those men, and you were not angling for Mireau's command," he says as if the notion itself was completely new to him, adding, "You are an idealist. And I pity you as I would the village idiot."

As drama, the effect of these scenes is overpowering, and yet in spite of their impact, the film's biggest and most unexpected emotional punch comes in its final moments, as a group of raucous French soldiers on furlough are serenaded by a frightened young German woman (played by Susanne Christian, Kubrick's wife-to-be) at an inn in which the men are loudly unwinding. Initially drowned out by their shouts and whistles, her simple but haunting song gradually silences the men and awakens in them a deep longing for family and home, prompting them to hum along and even reducing a few to tears. Captured as a series of emotively framed and shallow focus facial close-ups, it's a stunningly executed and intensely moving scene, and the perfect rebuke to those who still like to cast Kubrick as an unfeeling filmmaking machine.

Paths of Glory has frequently been cited as one of great anti-war films, but for the most part it is not war itself that is targeted but the sometimes inhuman manner in which this particular conflict was managed. The nature of war may have changed in subsequent years, with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder now acknowledged and better understood, and infantry soldiers are no longer ordered to walk to their deaths under a hail of machine gun fire in their thousands by commanders comfortably distanced from the front. Yet as we have become all too aware in recent years, soldiers are still sent into battles in which hundreds will lose their lives on false and flimsy pretexts by politicians who will never see a day of military action. And the story told here can also be read as a topical and all too pertinent parable on the workings of modern corporate capitalism, as the greed and ambition of the detached and cosseted one per cent have a devastating impact on those at the bottom of the social strata, destroying the lives of individuals who are little more than a decimal point in manipulated statistics to these new industry generals and their global power games.

A german song prompts a soldier to think of home

The general opinion is that Paths of Glory was the film in which Kubrick's signature style was first clearly crystalized, and despite the very real rewards and thrills of The Killing (1956), you'll get no argument from me on that score. The distinctive use of wide-angle lenses and locked-on-character camera movements would become Kubrick staples, but every one of cinematographer George Krause's compositions here has been crafted with purpose and every cut timed to perfection by editor Eva Kroll. The performances are excellent across the board, and despite having little in the way of physical action it's one of the director's most briskly paced works, while in terms of its political and emotional impact I'd argue that it has no peer in Kubrick's enviable oeuvre. Many years after I first saw it I am still left reeling by every viewing and stunned by the skill with which it is crafted. It's an extraordinary work even by this remarkable director's seriously high standards, and one that I have absolutely no qualms about labelling a masterpiece.

sound and vision

One of the things that has repeatedly smacked me around the head as a reviewer and collector of physical media is how we are forced to shift our perceptions of what constitutes technical excellence as the delivery medium in question evolves. I’ve lost count of the reviews of top-notch DVDs I’ve revisited to see the image quality, and particularly the detail definition, described by me as excellent, only for the Blu-ray edition of the very same title to come along a few years later and make that assessment look a little short-sighted. Of course, the move from line-based CRT TVs to larger, pixel-based HD screens meant that transfers authored in the new format at a far higher resolution rather than upscaled to it were always going to look superior. Then along comes 4K and UHD discs, and once again I find myself having to redefine what constitutes a pristinely sharp and detailed picture. Once again the screen on which I view my disc media has taken a significant jump in size, and now it’s the Blu-ray discs that are being upscaled. You can probably guess where all this is heading.

When I reviewed Eureka’s Blu-ray release of Paths of Glory back in 2016, I was bowled over by the quality of the image on that disc, which was far superior to any previous DVD or televisual transmission. Indeed, when recently revisiting that review, I seriously wondered if Eureka's new UHD would prove to be a significant improvement over that disc. Oh, you’d better believe it. For a start, the 2160p, 1.66:1 transfer on the UHD was sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, whereas all I know about the transfer on the previous Blu-ray is that it was – and I quote – a “high-definition digital presentation” of the film. I’m thus assuming that we’re looking at a brand new restoration here, one scanned at a significantly higher resolution to its predecessor. Having both review discs at my disposal, I was able to make a direct comparison between the two, and the improvements on this new UHD are substantial. First up, the image is noticeably sharper and the fine detail is more clearly defined, something instantly evident on the florals of General Mireau’s cap, but also on the smallest of details, from facial stubble on close-ups to eyelets on boots in wider shots. The UHD image also feels brighter than the one on the previous Blu-ray, not because the brightness has been cranked up here, but because of the far more generous contrast range afforded by Dolby Vision HDR, which lifts a significant amount of detail out of the shadows without burning out the brightest elements of the image in the process. As is often the way with UHD transfer, the film grain is distinctly defined but fine enough to feel organic to the image and picture is almost completely clean of dust or wear. A truly excellent transfer and a substantial upgrade over the previous Blu-ray, something that doesn't really come through on the non-HDR screen grabs used to illustrate this review.

Dzx inspects the trenches before the assault on the Ant Hill

Where the Blu-ray opted for dual mono Linear PCM 2.0, the soundtrack here is the more authentic Linear PCM 1.0 mono. The quality is otherwise on a par with its predecessor, with some tonal range restrictions but very clear reproduction of the effects and the dialogue, including during the famously challenging on-location courtroom scenes.

New to this release is a music and effects only track, which is also Linear PCM 1.0 mono and of similar quality to the full feature soundtrack. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the appeal of these and genuinely can’t imagine anyone watching this film in its entirety with this track enabled, but dipping in does give you an idea of just how many sound effects (footsteps, the splashing of wash water) were re-recorded in post-production.

Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired have been included.

special features

Audio Commentary by Adrian Martin
Australian film scholar and critic Adrian Martin has become one of my favourites when it comes to so-called expert commentaries, and his contribution here remains one of his best yet. Such contributions sometimes can feel dry, but Martin always feels as if he's speaking from the heart, and while he's doubtless working from notes, he's clearly riffing off them rather than reading verbatim from a prepared script, which really makes a difference. There's a lot covered here, from the factual to the analytical to quotes from other works, and even negative contemporary reviews by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, all of it worthwhile and much of it fascinating. The only point I'd question him on is his assertion that we never really know why the Ant Hill must be taken, whereas this is outlined concisely by Broulard and Mireau in the opening scene.

Peter Kramer (14:33)
Film scholar Peter Kramer provides a useful outline of the film's journey from conception to production, including the hiring and work of writer Jim Thompson, and explores varying stories of the process of bringing the film to the screen. It’s illustrated by some welcome (and high quality) behind-the-scenes stills.

Richard Ayoade (23:34)
Actor and director Richard Ayoade dismisses the notion that Kubrick was a cold filmmaker – indeed, he describes him as one of the most emotional directors there has ever been. He celebrates the handling of the courtroom scene and Douglas's performance, as well as discussing the characters and how they tightly hold on to their delusions in Kubrick films, and what he regards as the film's absurdist humour. There’s plenty more here.

Dax puts some subtle pressure on Broulard

Richard Combs (9:58)
Respected film writer Richard Combs offers some intriguing and persuasive observations on the film's almost military rank-based use of light, and the dance-like quality of the character interaction. He also discusses the work of writer Calder Willingham and the influence of the cinema of Max Ophüls on Kubrick's style.

Trailer (3:01)
A leisurely structured trailer (the proclamation that this is Douglas's finest role is followed by his most impassioned speech in its entirety) peppered with spoilers and topped with press quotes. We are also assured that, "Since the publication of this book 25 years ago, no-one dared to make this movie – it was too shocking, too frank."

These are always good, and this one is no exception. The first half is given over to an excellent essay by Glenn Kenny that traces Kubrick's journey to Paths of Glory, exploring its production and analysing what makes it such a great film. This is followed by a 1959 essay by Colin Young from Film Quarterly that looks at Kubrick in the context on non-Hollywood directors, with particular emphasis on Paths of Glory. Credits for the film, production stills and notes on viewing are also included.


For me, Paths of Glory was always one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films, as well as one of the most powerful cinematic condemnations of the absurdities of war and a class-based chain of command. In 2016 I sang the praises of Eureka’s Blu-ray, and seven-and-a-half years later I find myself having to once again redefine the bar for transfer quality excellence. The question, of course, is should you buy this UHD? If you have the previous Blu-ray and do not plan to make the move to 4K any time soon, then you’re not really missing out, as all of the special features on this UHD edition have been ported directly over from that release. If, however, you are a fan of this film and are 4K ready, or plan to upgrade in the not-to-distant future, then the improvement to the image really is worth buying this disc for alone. With those provisos, this has to come highly recommended.

Paths of Glory UHD cover
Paths of Glory

USA 1957
88 mins
directed by
Stanley Kubrick
produced by
James B. Harris
written by
Stanley Kubrick
Calder Willingham
Jim Thompson
from the novel by
Humphrey Cobb
George Krause
Eva Kroll
Gerald Fried
art direction
Ludwig Reiber
Kirk Douglas
Ralph Meeker
Adolphe Menjou
George Macready
Wayne Morris
Richard Anderson
Joe Turkel
Timothy Carey
Susanne Christian

disc details
region 0
LPCM 1.0 mono
English SDH
Commentary by Adrian Martin
Music and effects track
Peter Kramer interview
Richard Ayoade interview
Richard Combs interview

Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
26 February 2024
review posted
24 February 2024

related review
2001: A Space Odyssey

See all of Slarek's reviews