by Dilys Powell
Paths of Glory is the work of a brilliant young professional who is easing himself into the more difficult teaches of his job.
A year or two ago we were startled by the appearance of The Killing, a superb gangster piece by an unfamiliar name, Stanley Kubrick. Mr. Kubrick has had the courage to refrain from doing again what he knows he can do magnificently; abandoning the well-mapped regions of civil crime, he now explores the crimes of war. Paths of Glory (with Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou; based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb) is about the first world war, the intrigues of personal ambition, a French infantry attack known to be hopeless before it begins, and the court-martial of three innocent men selected as scapegoats for the failure. Presenting the high command as viciously unscrupulous, it was a bold film to make, and it is boldly made in ironic, light-and-dark visual contrasts, in unsparing close shots and vistas of calculated ferocity. Mr. Kubrick’s command of his medium forces us to believe in his story. It does not force us, not yet, to believe in his people.
The film invites compassion for the herd of soldiers, helpless, wavering between callousness and self-pitying sentimentality. But the invitation is made intellectually, from the outside. And except for a moment or two in the performance of Timothy Carey as a pathetic, bemused prisoner the characters are characters from a novel, not from life; Mr. Kubrick has not been able to inject into figures which are literary and alien from him the rough vitality which so naturally flowed through the inhabitants of the American underworld. Nevertheless, Paths of Glory in its authority, its piercingness, is an extraordinary film. A year which can at the last moment include it ends well.
The Sunday Times, December 1957
Also in: Dilys Powell—The Golden Screen: fifty years of films, London, Headline, 1989, p. 146