by Bosley Crowther
Credit Kirk Douglas with having the courage to produce and appear in the screen dramatization of a novel that has been a hot potato in Hollywood for twenty-two years. That is Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, a shocking story of a shameful incident in World War I—the court-martial and execution of three innocent French soldiers on charges of cowardice, only to salve a general’s vanity.
Obviously, this is a story—based on an actual occurrence, by the way—that reflects not alone on France’s honor but also on the whole concept of military authority. Yet Mr. Douglas has made a movie of it—an unembroidered, documentary-like account—with himself playing the role of an outraged colonel who tries vainly to intercede. It opened at the Victoria yesterday.
To a certain extent, this forthright picture has the impact of hard reality, mainly because its frank avowal of agonizing, uncompensated injustice is pursued to the bitter, tragic end. The inevitability of a fatal foul-up is presented right at the start, when an ambitious general agrees to throw one of his regiments into an attack that he knows has little chance to succeed. And it looms with ever mounting horror as he orders an example to be made of three men picked at random from the thwarted attackers and dogs them unmercifully to their doom.
All this is shown with shattering candor in this film, which was shot in Germany and was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who also helped to write the screenplay with Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham. The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick’s sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die.
Mr. Kubrick has made it look terrific. The execution scene is one of the most craftily directed and emotionally lacerating that we have ever seen.
But there are two troubling flaws in this picture, one in the realm of technique and the other in the realm of significance, which determine its larger, lasting worth.
We feel that Mr. Kubrick—and Mr. Douglas—have made a damaging mistake in playing it in colloquial English, with American accents and attitudes, while studiously making it look as much as possible like a document of the French Army in World War I. The illusion of reality is blown completely whenever anybody talks.
Mr. Douglas exudes tremendous passion as the colonel who tries to stave off a sacrifice, but he speaks with the same kind of English that he used in Gunfight at the O. K. Corral. Adolphe Menjou is a bit more clipped and Gallic as a staff general who plays sly politics, but George Macready acts and speaks the vengeful general as if he were a slimy Harvard man. Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey play the doomed poilus (remember that fine word?) with the swagger, slouches, and speech slurs of assorted G.I.’s in World War II. Emile Meyer is perhaps least effective (when he speaks) in the role of a French priest.
As for the picture’s significance, it comes to an inconclusive point. Its demonstration of injustice is like an exhibit in a bottle in a medical museum. It is grotesque, appalling, nauseating—but so framed and isolated that, when you come away, you are left with the feeling that you have been witness to nothing more than a horribly freakish incident.
Also, merely as a footnote—what a picture to open on Christmas Day!
Published: The New York Times, December 26, 1957